Thursday, August 13, 2009
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando's review of Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo"
Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki is best known here in the U.S. for films such as “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.” Now he delivers a magical tale called “Ponyo" (opening August 14 throughout San Diego). The title has been shortened from the Japanese release of "Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea," I guess that was too big a mouthful for U.S. audiences or mall theater marquees to handle but it conveys more of the film's poetic nature.
The fact that Disney is releasing Hayao Miyazaki’s films in the U.S. is both fitting and ironic. Miyazaki has been called the “Japanese Disney,” and the label is accurate in the sense that he too has built an animation empire. His films also share a similar artistry to the early hand drawn Disney cartoons. But as one anime scholar pointed out, Miyazaki could more accurately be called the Kurosawa of animation since he tells grand sweeping tales rich in layered meanings. But that complexity gets reduced to clichés in Disney’s trailer for the dubbed version of “Ponyo” opening in U.S. theaters. In the trailer, the story comes across like "Armageddon" with the world in danger of total destruction and the title character being the only one to prevent annihilation. But the film is really more about two children and the joys of childhood... everything else is just background details.The trailer does however reveal the beauty of Miyazaki's animation (take a look for yourself, the trailer is included to the left).
Miyazaki’s subtlety is lost in the pumped up trailer that plays up the voice talent of people like Miley Cyrus’ sister and a Jonas brother. The differences between Disney and Miyazaki are brought into further relief by the fact that “Ponyo” is a loose adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Disney did it’s own adaptation of that Hans Christian Anderson tale back in 1989. The varied approaches of the two films reflect cultural as well as artisitic differences. Disney turned the story into a personal quest about following your dreams in order to find your true self -- it's a moral tale with a strong sense of the individual and it comes across very much like a lesson. Miyazaki’s take is more about acceptance and finding your place in the world, while heeding and respecting the older generations. Miyazaki's film is less about youthful rebellion and independence and more about discovering how you fit into a larger community and find a soul mate. Plus Miyazaki once again resists serving up a villain. He rarely sees things in such clear black and white delineations. Fujimoto is the closet thing to a villain and he's just an overly concerned father who doesn’t know how to deal with his daughter.
“Ponyo” opens with a wordless and breathtaking montage of a magical undersea world. There we find the wild-haired, sunken-eyed Fujimoto collecting potions from iridescent squids. He’s joined by his daughter, a goldfish with a human face. We’re charmed by a watery world where prehistoric creatures swim alongside their contemporary counterparts. But we’re also appalled by the garbage cluttering the sea floor. Miyazaki doesn’t lecture us about the need to go green, he simply shows us the ocean in all its splendor and the pollution that threatens it. Then he lets us draw our own conclusions. Miyazaki employs a delicate touch even as he revisits favorites themes about humanity's disregard for the natural world, and nature's ability to wreak revenge.
From a technical perspective, “Ponyo’s” visuals are impressive because they’re not flashy 3-D computer images but lovingly hand drawn 2-D animation. Each of Miyazaki’s frames is like a work of art, and the simplicity of the 2-D animation engages our imaginations in a way that CGI sometimes fails to do. My sixteen-year-old son noted that Miyazaki's films never look dated the way "state of the art CGI" films do because they always have that hand drawn look. That "old-fashioned" quality proves unexpectedly timeless in the same way the stop-motion animation of films as different as "King Kong" (1933) and "A Nightmare Before Christmas" look equally fresh and engaging.
“Ponyo” recalls Miyazaki’s early film “My Neighbor Totoro” in its joyous celebration of the wonders of childhood. Five-year old Sosuke finds a goldfish trapped in a glass jar and sets her free. He then reveals his discovery to his mom, telling her, "I think I’ll call her Ponyo, she came to me and she might be magic. I found her and she’s my responsibility."
Then Ponyo grows arms and legs, and turns into a little girl. So Sosuke tells his mom, "Ponyo came back and she’s a little girl." And guess what? His mom displays not the slightest hint of surprise. In Miyazaki's world, adults aren't obligated to be the enemy of youthful imagination. One of the delights of Miyazaki’s films is how the real and the fantastical exist side by side. In “Ponyo” no one questions that a goldfish can have a human face or that it can morph into a little girl. The film boasts a child’s wide-eyed, casual acceptance of the limitless possibilities of the world. Not even the adults offer any arguments to the contrary. But only in a Miyazaki film could waiting for a bowl of ramen to cook prove as wondrous a moment as a fish transforming into a child. That’s Miyazaki’s gift – to find magic in the real world, and a realistic sense of detail in the fantasy one.
Miyazaki’s sense of the epic is reflected in the musical score of Joe Hisaishi. The soundtrack boasts a grand orchestral sound and occasional choral passages, all of which lift the film to a higher plane. Neither the music nor anything in the film ever condescends. This may be a tale suited to young audiences but its one anybody can enjoy because it never considers itself merely a kiddie film.
“Ponyo” (rated G) vividly captures what it feels like to be a child and to believe anything is possible. It’s a film of exquisite beauty and rich detail. Once again Hayao Miyazaki proves that he is not only a master animator but also a master storyteller. “Ponyo” is easily one of the best films -- animated or live action -- of the year.
Companion viewing: "My Neighbor Totoro," "The Little Mermaid," "Pinocchio," "Porco Rosso"
Checkout a highlight from Hayao Miyazaki's Comic-Con panel from last month. Miyazaki was making his first appearance at Comic-Con and a rare public appearance of any kind. He keeps threatening to retire because of his increasingly bad eye sight but he looked in fine form at the Con and I'm so thankful he is still animating joyous films like "Ponyo." The trailer is included above as well.