And now, your feature presentation, Ponyo. That’s a lie in itself, because you are not getting Ponyo, but instead a review for it. If you are foolish enough to read this instead of going out to watch the film, then 'fool you' as my old sociology teacher would say. No really, it would be nice if you made time to read my reviews. I do them so that they are read and not just for my own biggity sense of self-satisfaction or obsessive-compulsiveness.
Lets talk Ponyo. Released in 2008 but over here on February 12, Ponyo is the new film by Hayao Miyazaki, known worldwide as the oft-quoted "Japanese Walt Disney." His films have enlightened children and adults in the East and West, among the few foreign-language films to transcend the boundaries of language and communication. Spirited Away, winner of the 2003 Animated film Oscar, Princess Mononoke among others are wonderful, heartwarming soulful works, and it is a shame for people to go a lifetime without seeing one, because the discovery of Miyazaki is a truly amazing experiences of the cinema. Ponyo is a work of a similar vein.
The story of Ponyo follows, well, Ponyo (Yuria Nara/Noah Cyrus), a fish-girl who after escaping her father's (George Tokoro/Liam Neeson) underwater castle befriends a young boy Sosuke (Hiroki Doi/Frankie Jonas). His love for Ponyo encourages her desire to become a human, much to the chagrin of her father, who attempts to stop this from happening. The film is a retelling of The Little Mermaid fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, a story that is familiar to people around the world. This makes Ponyo an obvious import into the West, and I am glad for anyone who has seen it.
To mention the better parts of the film, it is impossible to overlook the genius of Miyazaki. Every time he makes a film, there is usually a period of a few years before his next work is released. With Howl's Moving Castle being released here in 2006, we have had to wait four full years for his latest work. Unlike many other directors, who take their time and have the tendency to have a patchy record, such as Roland Emmerich, Miyazaki-San never disappoints. A true auteur in every sense, his footprint is all over Ponyo, one that never overwhelms the audience: it is distinctly 'Miyazaki' without being 'Miyazaki this' or 'Miyazaki that', being in your face. He always remembers that story is first-and-foremost the most important aspect of filmmaking, and without this there is nothing for a work to revolve around. Miyazaki writes a wonderful screenplay that is terrific in so many ways. Structurally, it abides by the basic three-act formula, but around this formula the film thrives and weaves itself. It is a case of traditional and familiar film-making done in a wonderful manner which puts other traditionally made films, mostly those in Hollywood, to shame. The dialogue in the screenplay is spot on. It is written with a great range that caters to all aspects of the story. Exposition, character and thematic material are assembled very well in this simplistic but nevertheless dense screenplay. The balance on display stands in great contrast to The Sky Crawlers, Mamoru Oshii's latest film. It is does everything that film should do to a much better degree and weighs everything out appropriately. Miyazaki exhibits such control on his work that much of their success is dependant on him. As director here, he does a fine job. Over time, he has developed as a director to the point that he found a method that works for him. Not that he doesn't make an effort, he does after all personally inspect every drawing/shot that enter the film, but he does such a good job that he is able to make the work seem effortless. As a director, he is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, in that it is rare for them to make anything less than a solid film. Miyazaki's intelligence regarding his craft shines through in Ponyo and is a huge contributing factor to it's power.
Being a Miyazaki film, it is a given that the animation on display is going to something special. With every new film, the animators on his films seem to break new ground with what can be done in traditional anime films. For the past three films, Miyazaki used computer-generated animation in order to create certain elements. With Ponyo, he abandons this and makes a completely 2D anime. The concept that each of the images were created by human hands and drawn, coloured and shaded by people, as opposed to computers, is quite amazing. This is because, while all the film looks beautiful, the water is animated to literal perfection. The sea is an important part of Ponyo, and would therefore be essential that the animators do the job correctly or else it would simply fall apart in their faces. They handle what no doubt was an incredibly hard job with suitable gusto. Every single drawing is synched seamlessly that you are really amazed by the work. After the initial 'wow factor', you then view the sea as something natural and take it for granted, which I think is the greatest indication of how well animated the film is.
To go without a mention for Joe Hisaishi's music would be unfair. His work here adds another layer to the strong narrative of Ponyo. His work of Miyazaki's films contributes without end, and this is no exception. This is heartrending music of genuine emotion that synchronises with the emotion of the story. In movies, I get incredibly cross whenever in scenes which are 'emotionally stirring' you get that 'feel' music that tells you 'this is where you cry'. Here the score is non-intrusive and lets me get into the story of the film and truly feel the emotion, as opposed to being told to feel it. His 'feathered touch (points if you get the reference. hint: also animated)' and delicacy is exactly what is need for Ponyo. Hisaishi also does a good job of pacing during the 'action' sequences with the sea going rampant and causing all sorts of havoc. Finally, the end credits song, Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo On The Cliff), is the years ultimate feel-good song. It is really one of those songs that gets your feet moving and in a corny kind of way, had me starting to sing along, not helped of course by lyrics onscreen actively encouraging me to do so. Most of the time I will start without the effects of alcohol or peer pressure, so encouraging me with lyrics just started me up. It is great to find out that in Japan it got to number four on their Billboard Hot 100, and deservedly so. I would have this beaming through my own radio show if I had the opportunity.
One of the aspects that make Miyazaki's films so easy for people to watch in English-speaking countries is because Studio Ghibli often has Walt Disney Pictures distribute the film in the US. For theatrical release in the US, an English-language dub is recorded and is more often than not a good one. I myself watched both the English and Japanese language versions of Ponyo, and found them both to be equally satisfying for different reasons. Perhaps it speaks well of the universal language of film, but some members of the vocal cast stand out in each version. In the Japanese language version, Yuria Nara and Hiroki Doi shine as Ponyo and Sosuke respectively. While Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas (both siblings to more famous family members with same surnames) do a good job, it does on occasion sound more forced, whereas their Japanese counterparts come across as natural. The one shines most obviously in the English language version is Liam Neeson. Terrific actor that he is, as a reluctant antagonist he injects such heart into the character of Fujimoto. You genuinely get the emotions and motivations of the character with every intonation that Neeson makes. Although the English language cast is good, it is Neeson's work that transcends most.
The answer is yes. The question: do I love Ponyo? Excuse my linguistic pretentiousness back there, but this really is a great film. However, there are reasons as to why I do not think it is a masterpiece. Like Cemetery Junction, it does pain me to criticise, but it has to be done, regardless of the bulk of charm that it possesses. For starters, in both translations there are problems with the voice cast. As mentioned, Cyrus and Jonas' chemistry comes across as more forced in the English language dub. In the Japanese language version, you don't get the complexity of the relationship between Fujimoto and Ponyo as you do in the English version. Whereas Neeson creates a more rounded character with genuine motivation, George Tokoro's vocals come across as more antagonistic and villainous. Also, I think Austin Kennedy of Sin magazine makes a good point when mentioning how he was troubled by Sosuke's mother left him in the middle of the storm at their house in order to help the old people at the retirement home. I'm sorry, but I myself don't buy this. Ponyo is a film that despite fantasy elements is embedded in the real world and is a 'human' story. In Spirited Away you can understand the parents departure because they travel into an alternate universe and as a punishment for gluttony turn into pigs! This is a poor excuse for Ponyo and Sosuke to go off on their own little adventure and does not hold up. I know it sounds like a quibble, but it is a flimsy plot device to get the narrative moving. Instances such as this occur on occasion throughout and for a real world film with fantasy elements and not the other way round, this is a wrong turn and denies it from being placed among the upper-upper ranks of Miyazaki.
Nevertheless, despite my problems, I found Ponyo to be one of the best films that I have seen all year round. It is a sublimely charming film with some terrific animation, done in a unique style. Also, the vocal cast is for the most part in both versions sublime. Wonderful music of the same level of charm as the central story also is a great contributing factor. Finally, no one can doubt that Hayao Miyazaki is one cinema's great masters, and his footprint on this film is without question the big factor in Ponyo being as good as it is.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.4/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Utterly charmed