Ponyo review by Tom Blain
While Disney is moving towards more and more digital based animation, at least one person in Japan is still making childrens animated features the old fashioned way...and they eventually end up in Disney's mailbox. Hayao Miyazakis has been doing children's animation for decades and his feature work is released by Disney through Studio Ghibli. His most recent work, Ponyo seems as much a remnant of the past as black and white filmmaking. The movie caught my attention when it landed on a few top ten lists at #3 (David Cox of the Guardian and Haden Guest, director of Harvard's Film Archive). Its ironic that Disneys last fully non-digital animated film was The Little Mermaid which was Miyazakis inspiration for Ponyo.
The film opens with an array of fish and sea creatures swimming about, under the control of Fujimoto (voice: Liam Neeson). Visually he is an animated hipster-Poseidon with flowing rocket red hair, a mean striped suit, and an underwater ship that is a cross between the Beatles Yellow Submarine and the Nautilis from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A small fish/human creature escapes the carnival of underwater oddity and makes her way for the surface. After a rough journey she ends up in the hands of a curious 6-year old boy named Sosuke (voice: A freakin Jonas Brother). Like any good kid who finds a stray animal he names her (Ponyo...voice: Noah Lindsay Cyrus; MILEY'S SISTER?!?!?) and wants to take her home to mom (voice: Tina Fey). A bond between the two is formed, but her father, Fujimoto eventually uses his powers to pull her back into the sea.
The damage has been done. Freedom has been tasted and the little Ponyo has fallen in love with Sosuke and wants very much to become human (a la Little Mermaid). Of course attempting to become human has consequences. As the laws of the sea govern, for anyone who is not purely in love (awwww) there is the risk of becoming sea kelp. So for young Ponyo its all (human) or nothing (sea kelp).
The animation is both amazing at times and ...ho-hum. There are moments in Ponyo that have an amazing richness. As Ponyo transforms into a human a large tsunami is formed. The high waves of the tsunami take the form of large tuna-looking fish, adding to the mysticism within the ocean. The waves draw from traditional Japanese art, combining the darkness and impending danger of The Great Wave of Kanagawa along with the rounded beauty of The Waves at Matsushima. In general though, the detail seems to be a bit less than Disneys hand more recent animated features (a process that is quickly becoming extinct) but not so much that it drags the film down. It only lends to a less than stellar comparison. For example, the opening of Ponyo should be one where the audience is preparing to be blown away by many creatures living in the depths of the ocean, but some of them look blobby and simple.
Like previous Miyazaki films the story and mood are light hearted and lacking any evil villain. This is a departure or at least noticable difference when compared to the American made Disney animation features. For example, in The Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Andersen story both films were inspired by) there was a big, fat, scary, evil, demonic sea-witch named Ursula. She is the one who writes up a contract giving Ariel three human days to get the Prince to fall in love with her, else the witch gets her soul. She is pure evil, dressed in black, dark and scary, etc. In Ponyo, there is no witch and no villain. There is Fujimoto her father and Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett) who is the mother of the sea but neither wish ill-will upon Ponyo. After all she is their daughter. There is still the suspense driven by Ponyo's risk of not becoming totally human but instead of this being and evil dead it is played out as a law of nature or that sea. Even with that threat, there is never a feeling of danger or great suspense brought on by a demonic character. (Actually there is greater suspense in Sosukes moms insane driving habits.) Instead of focusing on a binary Good v. Evil, Miyazaki focuses in on the on the strength and power of the natural environment.
There are some curious moments in film that caused me to raise an eyebrow. The whole 6-year olds love being what keeps Ponyo human seems to be a bit shaky. Attached to that deal for Sosuke's mom is a 2nd 6 year-old to care for and oh by the way they are in love and that love kept one of them from being returned to the sea. No pressure on figuring that one out as a parent. That creates a segue to my other eyebrow which was raised by some of Sosukes moms parental decisions. During the tsunami she makes the decision to leave her house to the two 6-year old children (Sosuke and Ponyo) so that she can help out at the assisted living home where she works. A curious decision to leave two young children at home during a raging and dangerous storm, risking her life on the drive out to save some near strangers. Strangers that ... don't have as many natural years left as your own flesh and blood child. Maybe things are done differently in Japan.
All in all Ponyo was a fun, harmless film. I wouldn't rank it as high on my 2009 list as Cox and Guest but there are some moments that are worth replaying and definitely a film that is safe to watch with young children.
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IMDB Link: Ponyo
DVD Relase Date: 2010-03-02
DVD Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
DVD Extras: Storyboard presentation of the movie, Meet Ponyo, The World of Ghilbi
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