Friday, August 14, 2009

Movie Review: Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki's newest film "Gake no ue no Ponyo" (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea or simply "Ponyo" in the US) entered American theaters today.

As an avid Miyazaki fan (I had the privilege of seeing the Academy-Award winning Spirited Away and later Howl's Moving Castle on the big screen, and own several other H.M. classics including Laputa and Princess Mononoke), I was excited to see what Miyazaki-san had to offer. However, I also had reservations about Disney's choice of voice actors for Sosuke and Ponyo-- the youngest Jonas brother (Frankie) and Miley Cyrus' little sister (Noah Lindsey). Aside from other top-notch talent for the fishy tale (Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, and Matt Damon), Disney seems to be depending on the popstar-wake of the elder siblings to help generate interest in the film. Frankie did an (unexpectedly) good job in his role as Sosuke, while Noah's perpetually excited Ponyo (meaning an almost monotonous half-holler when speaking) made Ponyo seem younger than Sosuke rather than the same age. (Of course, the girl had just been a goldfish and thus should be given a little slack when it comes to human speech).

Here is the gist of Ponyo in 25 words:
Magical goldfish meets boy, falls for boy, wants to be/becomes human, upsets balance of nature with transformation, magical parents test boy's worth of daughter.
The film is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid" sans adult ages of the main characters, witches, daggers, rival love interest, shorn sisters, and relatively sad ending. (At the end of Hans' tale, the little mermaid sacrifices herself to save the life of her prince--who had married someone else--and becomes sea foam. She awakes to find herself transformed into an angel that watches over children, her reward for her selfless act. If only Disney's Ariel had been more like her...)
Ponyo and Sosuke are roughly five years old and are adorable+innocent; Miyazaki's power of detail and rendering believable (though magical) children are delightful. Ponyo's transformation comes not by witches but by the help of her father's potions and sheer willpower; she is lively and eager to help others with the magic she possesses (including healing and changing the size of objects). As Ponyo begins trying out human ways (drinking tea with honey and discovering the joy of ham), she easily produced "awww's" from myself and other viewers in the theater.
Sosuke is the only child I know of who knows Morse code; his love for Ponyo, his parents (including the crazy-driver mother Risa and often absent-but-not-distant father Koichi), and the old ladies at the senior center is devoted and touching considering his age. Ponyo (whether in goldfish or human form or somewhere in between) and Sosuke's scenes together are some of the most enjoyable of the film--aside from Ponyo's post-transformation run on the giant-fish-typhoon.

The fanciful plot requires the viewer to suspend a great deal of disbelief-- as an adult, more disbelief than I am usually accustomed to relinquishing. I found myself asking questions and getting very little answers; to me, it seemed the adults in the film had to suspend their disbelief as well. When Ponyo shows up as a human girl and Sosuke explains to his mother she used to be his goldfish, Lisa seems surprising calm at this news. She says little more than something to the effect of "This world is wonderful and hard to understand, Sosuke" as if trying to convince herself of this fact. The film overall is more visual feast (colored pencils, pastels, and watercolors are showcased as well as painted cels) than a plot fest. It seems to meander rather than charge over the literary hills of climax and conflict, but the film remains enjoyable regardless thanks to its visual strengths. Miyazaki's sea is a veritable cornucopia of nautical life-- crabs, jellyfish, octupi, various species of fish (including fictional and long-gone prehistoric fish), and creatures born of magic. His skill in depicting the movement and wetness of water is wonderful and adds a realistic richness to the film.

As for themes or messages, ecological responsibility and the transforming power of love predominate (the latter having to do with the ending of the film which I will not spoil here).
The local newspaper's review cast the film as one specifically aimed at children with rather a rather overt ecological tone. Earth-conscious elements aren't new in Miyazaki's work; Princess Mononoke is a film largely about the difficulties of human and earth coexistence+interaction; Spirited Away features the spirit of a polluted river who comes to visit the bathhouse; the floating castle of Laputa is transformed from a death-machine into a flying garden with a tree at its center.
The setting in Ponyo is a seaside town, hilly and green with highways right on the edge of the water. The opening sequences of the film show Ponyo in her abode below water with fantastic fishes and her wizard father's magical craft and air-sealing bubbles. However, pollution is present in many of the water scenes nearer the town (bottles, cans, sinks, etc), one glass jar directly affecting Ponyo herself. Fujimoto (Ponyo's father) is a mouthpiece for the environmental concerns in the movie; he complains that humans destroy the earth and treat it with carelessness. He is a magician that has been entrusted with the task of maintaining balance in the ocean and ultimately the planet with his potions. Ponyo's powers violate nature's balance and cause the moon to come dangerously close to the earth; why this is remains one of the puzzling elements of the story (or perhaps I missed something). While the film is not pedantic, the pollution sequences are cringe-worthy and partly justify Fujimoto's hatred of humans.

The art is beautiful and the cuteness level is high in "Ponyo"-- however, to enjoy this film to the fullest (if you are too old to qualify for a child's ticket at the theater), leave your adult filmic expectations at the door. The adult couple in the row ahead of me who walked out in the first ten watercolored minutes. I watched them go, settled back into my seat, intent on enjoying what was turning out to be more Totoro than Howl's Moving Castle. I watched the movie while smiling wryly at my inner struggle-- the incredulous adult and the absorbed kid within me viewing this film together. The former was questioning the plot holes loudly and gesticulating at the screen; the latter was too wrapped up in the sea creature ballet to notice.