Now Playing: ‘Ponyo’ swims the dazzling sea of Miyazaki’s imagination

13 Aug

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Ponyo(Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea) (G) 100 min. Directed and Written by: Hayao Miyazaki.  Featuring the voice-work of: (English version) Ponyo: Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Sosuke: Frankie Jonas, Koichi: Matt Damon, Lisa: Tina Fey, Gran Mamere: Cate Blanchette, Fujimoto: Liam Neeson. With Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin. Art Direction: Noboru Yoshida. Cinematography: Atsushi Okoi. Chief Animator: Katsuya Kondô. Original music by: Joe Hisaishi.

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 Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a welcome breath of fresh air for the world of animated film. For starters, the Japanese master’s latest is a delightful throwback to a not-so-distant time; the era of hand-drawn 2-dimensional, cell-animated films. While it’s true that cell animation is still a viable means of expression internationally, American theaters have not seen such product  in quite awhile. Thankfully, Walt Disney, prompted byPixar head John Lasseter, is attempting to reverse that. Tomorrow, Ponyo will be given a wide-release in theaters (the largest a Miyazaki film has had here in the West) and in November, the mouse-house will release The Princess and the Frog,  its first traditionally animated film(I’m not counting the opening of Enchanted or all of those DTV cheapies) since 2002’s  pathetic Home on the Range.

Ponyo offers all audiences, both the newcomer and the Miyazaki faithful, something both artistically beautiful and conceptually original. Created in a simple, elegant style with water-color pastels, this fantasy is driven by its vibrant, otherworldly visuals and by its creator’s keen sense of child-like wonder and knack for off-kilter, human details. Skewing to a younger audience than some of Miyazaki’s other animated ventures, like Princess Mononoke or  Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo is an honest-to-goodness family film; it isn’t just appropriate for all ages, it has the potential to entertain all ages.

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 The film opens in an underwater kingdom not unlike the one featured in The Little Mermaid, where a young goldfish wanders away from her home and gets scooped up in a garbage trawler, eventually floating up to the surface world and into the bucket of a small boy named Sosuke.  Sosuke is delighted by his new discovery and takes it with him to show his mother Lisa, who is single-handedly caring for the boy since his father is at sea.

Later, a strange, oddly dressed man with matted red-hair and a foreboding appearance shows up looking for the fish, which Sosuke has named Ponyo. This man,Fujimoto, is actually Ponyo’s father and he seeks to bring her back to avoid an ecological upset. By this point, the little fish has discovered a way to transform herself into a human child, and wants to stay on the land and live with Sosuke.

As a result, the world of the ocean becomes turbulent, and the aquatic kingdom starts mixing with the surface-dwellers in some of the film’s most amazing sequences. The tide is rising, the moon is getting closer to the Earth, the entire town appears to be in the middle of a massive flood, and a menagerie of sea creatures are now swimming across what once were human homes and major roadways. An appearance by a sea-goddess named Gran Mamere, who is apparently Ponyo’s mother, informs Fujimoto of what is at stake if Ponyo remains in her earthly home; her survivial and well-being are ultimately in the hands of the young boy she has attached herself to. As the film continues, the events push towards a climax that will bring all the characters to the undersea kingdom and to a choice.   

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I’ve seen Ponyo twice as of this writing; once in Japanese with English subtitles, and more recently with the English voice-over that can be found on prints of the film hitting theaters tomorrow. As a die-hard animation fan, I enjoyed it both times, but curiously found myself reacting to it far more the second time. On the first go-round, I was somewhat disappointed by the slightness of the narrative and the two central characters were far too young to make their relationship compelling. I was in love with the animation, but I kept approaching the film as an adult, with a need for a more cohesive story and emotional connection. On the second veiwing, my mind sidestepped the story concerns completely and was caught up in the magic of the experience.

More than a movie, Ponyo is a playground for the imagination that manages to evoke the inner workings of a child’s mind. As a kid, I remember looking out the window on rainy, blustery days, half expecting/half hoping to see fish flopping there on the ground. In Ponyo, when the rain comes, so does an entire Devonian sea, complete with prehistoric creatures that are both fearsome and wonderful to look at. Little details like a boy hiding his fish in the bushes during school, sneaking eager glances outdoors to check on it, feel accurate and true to life. One of the film’s best moments is watching Ponyo, as a human girl, eating at a table for the first time. Miyazaki isn’t concerned with big set pieces but has seemingly made this movie just so scenes like that can exist.

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Of all Miyazaki’s films, Ponyo most resembles My Neighbor Totorro, an endearing work about two young girls meeting a friendly forest creature who ultimately helps them get to the hospital to see their sick mother. Both films have a very simple structure that is less about telling a complex story and more about creating a setting where the young characters can have engaging adventures in a magical world. Neither movie has a villain, or a quest, or really any major crisis that needs averting.

Although the merging of the ocean and the land sounds like something that would feature in a Roland Emmerich disaster film, it isn’t portrayed as terribly critical and mostly exists so that the animators can create scenes like the one where Sosuke and Ponyo take a little boat out across the water-logged town and look down in wonder at the schools of prehistoric fish that have come up to the surface. In another instance, Sosuke’s father stands on the deck of his boat and looks out in amazement at a giant stack of ocean-liners, all packed on top of one another. With each new image, the film moves farther and farther away from the real and more towards a kind of dream.

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There is a richness to the imagery that reminded me of the illustrations of children’s-book authors like David Weisman and Chris Van Allsburg, where each frame has been expertly arranged, crammed to the brim with information, and suggesting a lush world hiding beyond the limits of the page. In the animation, Miyazaki and his crew have taken pains to make the human characters posess realistic movements and individual quirks. It is a joy to watch Lisa, Sosuke’s mother, drive him to school; the car careens recklessly, but its her facial expressions and the way she grips the wheel that create the humor. The scene couldn’t be funnier, even if it were live-action and that really were Tina Fey driving.

In addition, the underwater world is a masterpiece of imagination; the detail and accuracy that goes into each creature, even the long-gone prehistoric fish, is awe-inspiring. Instead of lots of small lines and complex shading, they are realized in big, bold, clear strokes and they have a simplicity that makes them all the more amazing.  The character work is equally impressive, giving every individual a distinctive style and emotional identity through imagery alone.

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Ultimately, Ponyo is a work of art; layering on multiple elements, feelings, and ideas into a concoction that requires you leave baggage at the door. I imagine that kids will love the undersea moments, and the ones with the bizarre marine life the best. They feel weird and sometimes creepy, but mostly they are exciting to watch and the adventure moments are thrilling without being scary or troubling. Sosuke and Ponyo pal around as fast friends; the movie doesn’t require a romance or something else to suggest that the two care for each other. The parents in the film all care for their children, even Fujimoto, who at first seems like he might be the villain. He’s really just a bumbling meddler with a good heart.

Hayao Miyazaki has been working in the field of animation since the early 1960s, and has been directing since the early 70s. Now at 68, he has made a film that is as polished, as creative and as impressive as any of his other work. Its inspiring to see that he has only gotten better with age. Ponyo may not he his best film, but as a whole it shows that the man has never stopped growing as an artist, or lost touch with the audience. He sets out here to make a film for children and he has succeeded. Instead of pandering to the immature instincts of a child, as most American kid’s fare does (G-Force anyone?), Miyazaki’s films seek to nurture a sense of identity and creative strength. In the process, he manages to hook adults who aren’t afraid of tapping into that old enchantment. 

 

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One Response to “Now Playing: ‘Ponyo’ swims the dazzling sea of Miyazaki’s imagination”

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