Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Ponyo

So, Ponyo.

For those of you who don't already know, Ponyo is an animated film about a little girl-fish who escapes one day from the ocean, only to be found by Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy. Sosuke names his fish Ponyo and as the day goes by, with Ponyo in a little green bucket of water, Ponyo falls in love with him...and ham also. Ponyo really likes ham. Now, don't ask me how a little girl-fish falls in love with a human boy - I have no idea and I know better than to ask those kind of questions while watching a Miyazaki film.

Starting from the very first scene, I experienced some serious Little Mermaid deja vu - only Japanese style and only if Ariel and Prince Eric were 5-year-old kids. I was also slightly confused about what was going on, but as with all Miyazaki films, you just have to go with it. Ponyo's father (who suspiciously resembled David Bowie), voiced by Liam Neeson, was something of a under-water wizard...person, even though he was apparently not human, but used to be at some point in the past. Are you getting all this? Good. I won't give any more of the story away, but just know that it is filled with action and adventure and Matt Damon (when we first heard his voice, Rebekah leaned over to me and whispered, "Jason Bourne is his dad"! Much giggling ensued) and lots of old ladies. As with ninjas, you can never go wrong with adding lots of old ladies to your movie. Miyazki, I've come to find, tends to enjoy having lively and oftentimes hilarious old people in his films. I can't say it's a bad move - some of his best lines are delivered by senior citizens.

I was only a little bit surprised by how child-like this film turned out to be. If you're looking for a Princess Mononoke (with lots of blood, both red and green) or even a Spirited Away, you'll not find it with Ponyo. This is one of Miyazaki's more mainstream, Disneyesque films and is really targeted more towards children than adults. That's not to say that it doesn't touch upon Miyazaki's favorite (adult) themes - nature vs human nature, the effects of industry and technology in and on the earth, with strong, female character leads. Fujimoto, who I like to think of as David Bowie, himself swept the waves while searching for Ponyo and grumbled non-stop about the "filth" we humans leave in our wake. The idea was nearly identical to the main theme in Princess Mononoke, but instead of humans slowing destroying the forest and all its spirits, Ponyo portrays humans destroying the ocean and all its spirits. In that same vein, the work that ended up being the most difficult for Miyazaki to tackle, the drawing of the sea and it's waves, turned out to be the most visually spectacular part of the film.

As with all Guillermo del Toro films (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy I and II), with Miyazaki we must recognize and bow our heads to the vastly unique and unashamedly out-of-this-world imagination these filmmakers were gifted with. It's as if they have the ability to awake from their nightmares and dreams and remember every little detail of their dream-world and convert it to film for our very own viewing pleasure.

I won't say that Ponyo was one of my favorite Miyazaki films, because it wasn't, but it was entertaining nonetheless. I would like to suggest that you see the film in theaters, if only because the visual stylings of Miyazaki's hand-drawn pictures should have their due on the big-screen, but I doubt it will be in theaters for much longer. So, if you're desiring a night of lighthearted, giggle-inducing fun (Ponyo is seriously the craziest fish-girl-chicken-girl-thing ever), then just wait for the DVD release and have Miyzaki night. I'll even loan you my Princess Mononoke, in case you're jonesin' for a double feature.

Now, in a surprising twist (one that will no doubt reveal me to be the amateur writer that I am) allow me to introduce to you our very own GUEST BLOGGER, Rebekah Nolan. Rebekah accompanied me to the film last night and has her own thoughts about the film to add to mine. Take it away, Rebekah!

Thanks, Lauren! I think you're a great writer. I mostly write poop jokes all the time, so this should be interesting.

First off, let me confess…I don't really think Miyazaki can do any wrong. I'm an animation-lover, and when it comes to that particular medium, I've never seen anybody do it better. Not even Disney or Pixar. Don't get me wrong. I will always have a fondness for classic Disney features, and Pixar is doing amazing things. They're second on my list. But Miyazaki will always be at the top. I agree with Lauren. Ponyo wasn't my favorite of his films. Spirited Away will always have that distinction. The story doesn't have the same sophistication as that movie, or Mononoke or Nausicaa, but its sweetness will win you over. I read that Sosuke, the little boy, was inspired by Miyazaki's own grandson. This movie is a tribute to the innocence of young children. Sosuke is brave and kind and never forgets about Ponyo…even when he thinks he's lost her. And Ponyo's love for Sosuke is the driving force behind the magic that explodes out of the sea when she fights to get back to him. There's no real villain to this piece--Fujimoto distrusts humans, but he loves his daughter and he loves the sea. He isn't portrayed as a monster by any stretch of the imagination. It's an interesting choice, and a brave one. Disney films would never craft a whole movie without an obvious villain. But even in a children's film, Miyazaki is determined to show that life, and people (and magic sea creatures) are complex. Things aren't black and white.

Apart from the story, which is charming, if strange and meandering, there are certain technical aspects of Miyazaki's work that will never cease to amaze me. The animation is always flawless. In Ponyo, since so much of the story involves water, there is a fluidity to it that's really lovely. The sea is literally its own character, bending, twisting, and flowing through the movie. Ponyo herself will morph partially back into a fish girl when she uses her magic. This transformation reminded me of Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie is turned into an old woman (see Lauren's notes on Miyazaki and old women!) but as the story progresses her age becomes plastic. At times she looks very old, at times young, and at times her face falls somewhere in the middle. But it's animated so beautifully that the changes feel completely organic as you watch. Miyazaki collaborates with the same composer, Joe Hisaishi, on pretty much all his films, and their work, as usual, integrates perfectly. The soundtrack has some of that same fluidity that the animation does. It's moves like water. Finally, like always, the detail will blow you away. This, to me, has always been the key to Miyazaki. When you're working on an animated film, you have to think of everything. You have no actors to instinctively move or behave a certain way. There was a moment, in Ponyo, where Sosuke wades out into the shallows to fish Ponyo out of the water. He carefully takes off his little shoes and then pulls his pant legs up and holds them as he wades. It's what a real child would do. It's small, but those are the little touches that make his work so striking. He looks at the way people move, their mannerisms, and makes sure his characters have those things. It would be easy, and more efficient, and probably cheaper, to skip some of those details when you're animating. But he never does. I think that's why we buy the magic and the strangeness and the dream-like quality of a lot of his films…there's an authenticity mixed in with the strangeness, which makes us more than willing to believe what we see.

So, those are my thoughts. Oh, and the voice cast was pretty good! I'm neither a Miley Cyrus NOR Jonas Brothers fan, but their respective little siblings did a nice job with Ponyo and Sosuke. And Tina Fey impressed me as well. Actors like Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett are always reliable, and the trio of old ladies, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin, were very funny.

As always, this just leaves me eager to see what Miyazaki comes up with next!

Thank you for your very well written thoughts, Rebekah! I'm sure my three readers will appreciate having some good writing to read, for once.
Until next time, anime-lovers, I leave you with this assignment:
Go rent Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Watch them and adore them and thank me (and Rebekah) later.

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