Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)

Ponyo

Escaping a tsunami in a small car is never a good idea.

(2008) Animated Fantasy (Disney) Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the most honored and beloved director of Japanese anime is Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for Spirited Away, he’s also directed some of the most enchanting and beloved anime films ever, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Tortoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and my personal favorite, Princess Mononoke among others. He remains one of the few feature animation directors working exclusively in the hand-drawn animated style that established Disney (who distributes the output of his Studio Ghibli here in the U.S.) and is as imaginative a director working anywhere in any medium today.

His latest may well be one of the most beautiful animated features in recent memory. It begins with a 5-year-old named Sosuke (Jonas) finding a goldfish trapped in a jar on the seashore which he names Ponyo (Cyrus) – the fish, not the seashore.

But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is the daughter of Fujimoto (Neeson), a sea wizard with incredible powers who has renounced his humanity to rule under the sea. When Sosuke takes her from her natural environment, it causes the balance between the sea and the land to be sundered and soon tsunamis are buffeting the small port town where Sosuke lives.

He brings the fish to his mother (Fey) who is having issues with her husband Koichi (Damon), a merchant sailor who is away more than he is at home. When he visits the retirement home his mom works at, a trio of the residents (Tomlin, White and Leachman) there realize immediately that Ponyo is no ordinary fish.

Sosuke has a paper cut and when Ponyo licks the cut and magically heals it, the taste of human blood allows Ponyo to take on the attributes of a human and she magically grows arms and legs. This causes further imbalance which even Fujimoto is powerless to prevent.

When Sosuke and her mom get separated by the tsunamis, Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a large sailing vessel to go searching for her in the now flooded town. However, the cost of all this magic is taking its toll on Ponyo and the continued imbalance between sea and land threatens to completely undo the world – unless Sosuke and Ponyo can intervene.

The tale told is a simple one, and it is meant to be appealing not just to the adults who make up the core of Miyazaki’s audience to date, but also to small children, a market he hasn’t really gone after up to now. Quite frankly, he’s successful at capturing both with this film which is destined to be considered among his very best.

Miyazaki’s imagination seems boundless, and his underwater scenes are filled with strange beauty, the kind heretofore found in nature films but given a touch of wonder that is entirely man-made. Miyazaki is telling on one hand a cautionary tale; the sea bottom is badly polluted with trash and sludge, while above the waves the adults are blissfully (and perhaps criminally) unaware of the damage their society is inflicting on the sea, which doesn’t endear them to the powerful creatures – including Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Blanchett) who is literally a goddess.

There are other lessons as well, with the familiar “we all must be who we are, not who others want us to be” which is a staple in children’s films, but certainly the ecological issue seems to be the one most pointedly presented.

Miyazaki isn’t all about the fantastic, however; the human characters have a great deal of depth to them. Sosuke’s parents aren’t the perfect couple; they squabble and bicker, and neither one is wrong and neither one is right. Lisa is frustrated with having to raise her child essentially alone, and Koichi certainly isn’t doing what he does by choice; the family needs the income he brings in to survive, and when additional work is available, he has no choice but to take it. It’s a problem that isn’t an unfamiliar one in tough economic times.

Even peripheral characters like the three elderly women from the retirement home have distinct personalities and play crucial roles in the story. The mark of a great storyteller is not that he creates characters that move the story along (how often do we see characters in movies both live action and animated that exist only to perform a singular function in the film) but that he utilizes the characters he has to make the story flow; in other words, the characters belong in the story and they drive what happens in it, rather than exist as a reaction or an action within that story. It’s all a bit complicated, I know, but trust me – I can recognize great writing when I see it.

Japanese culture has a thing about cute; you can see it in everything from Hello Kitty to Sailor Moon. At times, that cuteness goes over the top and makes you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid with twice the sugar added; you just want to gag. Miyazaki is not known for embracing that cultural element, but it does appear from time to time in this movie, and while I can understand that it helps to make the movie relatable to small fries, I have to admit as a curmudgeonly middle aged man it was annoying to me.

Be that as it may (and it is an admittedly personal bias) I can still give this movie a very strong recommendation. For those who might be skeptical about Japanese anime, be assured that there are no subtitles here; the story is recorded completely in English with an all-star cast as you can see in the credit list at the top of the review. Disney has made a great effort to make this very special movie work in an American market, hiring Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to pen the Japanese translation, and the opening and closing sequences were redone to be more appealing to American audiences (on the Blu-Ray if you choose the Japanese language version you will see the Japanese openings; if you choose the English language you’ll see the American version).

This is a marvelous movie whether an animated feature or not; you will probably not see a movie so beautifully drawn as this for a very long time. Those who are admirers of Miyazaki have probably already seen it, and will no doubt look to purchase the Blu-Ray version which is packed with features enough to keep you occupied for awhile. Those unfamiliar with his work can do worse than to start here. It’s well worth your effort to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Miyazaki creates an imaginative world that you want to explore. This is one of the most beautiful animated films of the past decade. The characters are strongly written and are more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to advance the plot along.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit simplistic, aimed squarely for younger children. The Japanese penchant for the overly cute rears its head here.

FAMILY VALUES: Although there are some scenes of jeopardy for Sosuke and Ponyo, the movie is certainly meant for small children and can be recommended for all audiences on that basis.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro when he was five years old.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not surprisingly, the Blu-Ray version of the movie is chock full of interesting features, including a visit to the Studio Ghibli compound, with one specific feature showing how the establishment of a day-care center led directly to the creation of Ponyo and very nearly became a setting for the movie. We also visit the village on the Seto Inland Sea that became a model for the one in the film, and examine the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, and how it relates to Japanese culture. There is also a marvelous interactive guide to the World of Ghibli, which depicts the various films released by the studio as locations on an island, several of which you can visit (and is tied in to the video release of three other Ghibli films for the first time in the U.S.).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a major hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Montana Amazon

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