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Ponyo (2009) Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 August 2009
Out of all of Japan's cinematic exports, Hayao Miyazaki may be the most recognizable since Akira Kurosawa. Having directed feature length animated films since the late 70's, Miyazaki has risen to prominence in the United States on a wave of acclaim from other filmmakers, most notably John Lassiter or Pixar and Disney fame. In fact, Lassiter convinced Disney to buy the rights to the vast majority of Miyazaki's output (released in Japan by Miyazaki's own company, Studio Ghibli). And while Miyazaki has been known in America since 1997's Princess Mononoke, he became most famous after the release of his 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away, the first anime film to win an American Academy Award. Since then, the release of any Miyazaki film in the States is something of an event for animation enthusiasts, which brings us to his latest film, Ponyo.

Ponyo tells the story of the title character, a half-human half mystical fish. She lives with her father, who is unnamed but appears to have an important function in keeping the world in balance, along with many dozens of sisters who look like miniature versions of her. As the film opens, Ponyo escapes and makes it to the world above the ocean. Getting trapped in a bottle, she is rescued by a young boy, Sosuke. After licking a cut on Sosuke's finger, Ponyo begins to talk, proclaiming her love for the boy. However, she is recaptured by her father, who attempts to make her forget her trip on land. She rebels, claiming she wants to be a human, and sets out to find Sosuke again, causing a serious tip in the balance of nature. Now her father and mother have to determine whether or not Sosuke really loves her, and in the process save the planet. At first glance, Ponyo seems to have the epic sweep and environmentally friendly message of Princess Mononoke. But, in fact, it's a much more intimate tale, told mainly through the eyes of two children. Based loosely on The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is Miyazaki's most visually arresting film to date. The opening alone, depicting a cornucopia of underwater denizens, is enough to impress even the most jaded movie-goers. And Miyazaki stretches himself, using homespun pastel styles for the opening and closing credits. The character designs are more traditional Miyazaki, with Ponyo's fish form being unbearably adorable. Her father looks like a refugee from Yellow Submarine, and is often more humorous than anything else.

Unfortunately, Ponyo falls prey to the enigmatic storytelling that Miyazaki tends to lean on more often than not. While several conflicts are set up during the course of the film, they're virtually all discarded for a quick-fix ending that does little to satisfy the dramatic tension that had been built up to that point. Several lines indicate that Ponyo's mother and father are elemental, meaning both beautiful and dangerous, but we never see a dangerous side to either of them. And while lip service is given to the original downer ending of The Little Mermaid (the story, of course, not the Disney animated film), any attempts at suspense or mystery regarding how the picture will end is dispelled immediately. I don't mind films that depart from accepted narrative convention, but don't spend 90% of the movie creating traditional narrative tension, only to drop it at the last minute. In doing so, Miyazaki actually robs the audience of a catharsis they have been expecting the entire time.

Disney has given the film the royal treatment with an English dub that contains several Oscar nominees/winners, showbiz legends, and new faces. Most impressive is Liam Neeson as Ponyo's father. He gives a very different take on the concerned father than he does in Taken. Tina Fey is also wonderful as Sosuke's mother, Lisa, and Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin are quite memorable as a trio of senior citizens. Sadly, the House of Mouse uses the opportunity to pimp out their latest pre-fabricated pop star marketing sensations. In this case, it's a younger Jonas brother as Sosuke and Miley Cyrus' (aka Hannah Montana) younger sister as Ponyo. In point of fact, the two aren't terrible (Cyrus doing a better job than Jonas), but they're clearly in the movie to bolster their reputations as child stars, not because of any potential quality in their voice acting. Even worse, the pair sing a song at the end, and then we have to endure a remix of that same song. It's a thoroughly embarrassing and disrespectful ode to capitalism that is at odds with the pastel environments that adorn the end credits. I would say Disney should be ashamed of themselves, but I know better than to expect them to treat a foreign film with anything like respect.

So, yes, Ponyo is flawed, more so in the English dub, but it's still often achingly beautiful and worth seeing even for those who have only a passing interest in animation. Just do yourself a favor and seek out a version with subtitles. You'll be doing yourself and your eardrums a favor.

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