Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Ponyo - English Dub
Hayao Miyazaki is about as revered and beloved as a filmmaker has ever been; his entire body of work is celebrated across the globe, practically worshipped by the Japanese, and deeply respected by an army of artists, directors, writers and all other sorts of creative professionals, many of whom claim Miyazaki as a deep and fundamental influence on their work.
So when he puts out a new film, it's a little hard to figure out where to start discussing it. The natural reaction would be to try and compare it to his previous work – a reaction supported and emboldened by the thematic and visual similarities among his last three films, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, all three being sweeping, lengthy epic fantasies with themes and messages ranging from the personal to the social to the environmental, some subtle, some not. His latest film – Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (retitled simply Ponyo for its English language release) – basically throws all of that out the window. Comparing this to any of his previous films, with the possible exception of My Neighbor Totoro – is a waste of time.
That's because Ponyo is, from its very first frame to its very last, a pure fairytale. Those children's books your parents would read to you when you were little, each containing one amazing adventure after another, all sharing some common, familiar and friendly elements, firing the pistons in your imagination, fueling your dreams – that's what this film is. And just as you laid there in your feety pajamas thrilling to tales of magic and wonder, your parents noticed the stories they were reading to you were chock-a-block with inconsistent internal logic, head-scratching plot turns and nonsensical story progression.
But it didn't matter, because they were fairytales, meant to excite and intrigue young minds. Cold adult-minded logic had no place and no purchase inside those stories. And such is the tale of Ponyo.
The film opens with a dense menagerie of undersea life swirling hypnotically around a strange deep-sea boat captained by a wizard who appears to be conducting experiments. A red-headed fish-girl-whatever thing, followed by an army of baby fish-girl-whatever things (they're mermaids, apparently, but they resemble no common mermaid imagery), escapes from his watchful eye to the surface and meets a kind-hearted boy named Sosuke who takes her in, cares for her (unnerved by the cute-but-kinda-bizarre human-headed fish creature she is) and names her Ponyo. Naturally, the wizard who had her imprisoned gets her back – but not before she's had a brief taste of human blood (obtained by healing a small cut on Sosuke's thumb with her tongue), which apparently grants her the powerful ability to become human while retaining her inherent magical powers.
Still with me?
Naturally, the wizard – her father - is none too happy about this. He finds humans to be inherently filthy and disrespectful, and keeps to himself at the bottom of the sea, maintaining a magical well that would return the earth to the days when the unfettered ocean covered the globe, populated by prehistoric fish. Ponyo is determined to become human and rejoin her beloved Sosuke on the surface, and in her escape attempt, unleashes the wizard's magical well, which causes the ocean to surge, spawning countless deep-sea creatures that overwhelm the Cliffside village Sosuke lives in. Turns out that Ponyo's transformation has offset the natural balance of things, which pulls the moon toward the earth, making the oceans rise to levels that threaten humanity. So the wizard has to seek out Ponyo's mother – the Goddess of the Ocean – to set things right. The two decide to test Sosuke's love for Ponyo, and it's on his shoulders to prove himself and in the process save the planet.
If all that sounds like a whole lot of nonsense, it's because you're over, say, 8 years old and require things to have some consistent internal sense to them in order to digest the story. But that isn't necessarily a proper criticism of this film – it's very clear that Miyazaki set out to create exactly that, a fairytale in the same vein as, say, The Little Mermaid or Pinocchio (stories Ponyo shares plenty of elements with). If you go back and check the modern Disneyfied versions of those and other fairytales (which are, in our time, what people think of when they remember those stories, rather than the often bloody and brutal original versions), they're all just as full of nonsense as this one is, albeit with perhaps a bit more exposition and explanation that Miyazaki's film allows (not to mention being a touch more obvious and didactic with their moral messages).
So while you may be asking yourself at times throughout the film “Wait, what? Why did that just happen? Why are Ponyo's magical powers seemingly totally arbitrary? Did the undersea wizard have sex with the goddess of the ocean, because if so, ew! Also, how in the world can a tiny Japanese 2-door sedan outrun a gigantic tsunami powered by enormous fish?!,” rest assured, the film's intended audience isn't thinking about any of that. They're marveling at the fantastic and wildly imaginative images on screen, allowing themselves to be whisked away by the story and falling in love with the hero and heroine. All that “logic” and “sense” stuff just doesn't matter.
And ultimately, that may be why Ponyo, at least as the newest member of Miyazaki's hallowed filmography, may be considered something of a letdown by longtime fans of the artist. It's light as a feather, with little to no real meaning or subtext – the wizard's generic dislike of humanity doesn't fuel the main conflict (which is hardly much of a conflict at all, really) and is more of a side note than a real theme within the film. It's briskly paced, doesn't linger in one place too long, and ends with a cute but abrupt moment that doesn't wrap up a whole lot. In short, if Princess Mononoke was a sumptuous 7-course meal, Ponyo is a well-crafted crème brulee. Which is all well and good, but Miyazaki fans might show up expecting that 7-course meal, and that's where the inevitable mild disappointment may set in.
Ultimately, however, it's clear that that's what Miyazaki set out to make – something for his grandchildren to love. And it does that very well; it's hard to think of another of his films aside from My Neighbor Totoro that will absolutely, unequivocally thrill a younger audience. This film cannot be recommended to families with children enough.
It's important to mention “family” in relation to this film, because for all its fantasy trappings, there's one character – Sosuke's mother, Lisa – who provides something of a ground for adults, and is a delight every time she's on screen. She is portrayed as a strong, caring, rational and totally modern mother figure, with plenty of human flaws peeking through the cracks. Her tender and realistic relationship with Sosuke – and ultimately, Ponyo – is a big highlight of the film, and her scenes provide a subtle but potent refuge for adult viewers who may need a break from the tempest of fairytale madness that inhabits the rest of the story.
The production is, as expected, lush and vibrant. The “fairytale” theme bleeds from every frame, from the sketchy, color-pencil-and-pastels background art (a departure from the hyper-detailed environments his characters populated before) to the blisteringly bright color palette, this film was designed from the ground up to be a storybook come to life. The underwater sequences in particular are often breathtaking, and the action scenes – of which there are many – are uniformly thrilling. Spectacular animation and artistry are what people expect from Studio Ghibli, and here, they've done it again. Joe Hisaishi similarly turns in his usual excellent score, with the catchy (but extremely simple) ending song being best described as a "ditty".
The English dub is excellent, and although the folks at Disney have no more need to prove they can provide wonderful dubs, this one feels a bit stronger than some of their previous work. The performances are very natural; it doesn't “feel” like a dub at all. Fans worried about gimmicky Disney Channel casting – namely the youngest Jonas brother, Frankie, as the lead, and Miley Cyrus' little sister, Noah, as Ponyo – can rest easy, because they do an excellent job sounding like kids without getting irritating, keeping the big dramatic emotions properly in check while still exuding childlike enthusiasm. Their performances are expertly tailored to the characters. Other venerable regulars, like Liam Neeson as the wizard Fujimoto and Cate Blanchett as the sea goddess, are great, in a shock to no one.
Special mention must be made of Tina Fey, who voices Lisa. It is a marvelous performance and not at all what many might have expected from the comic actress, most famous for 30 Rock and her days on Saturday Night Live. It feels flawless; probably the best vocal performance I've ever heard in a Ghibli dub (or any other dub, for that matter). It eschews completely Fey's comic persona and instead brings the character to life as a wholly realistic and at times remarkable parent.
So while Ponyo may not be what Miyazaki fans expect – or even want – from him at this point, it succeeds at what it's trying to be, which is an old-fashioned fairytale with some truly breathtaking moments. It probably won't go down as his best, strongest, or most thoughtful film, but it's clear as day that he made exactly the film he set out to make.
The end credits for Ponyo are scrolled vertically over pleasant sketches of the ocean, the words “we made this movie” scrawled in crayon up top, with a little crude hand-drawn cartoon image set next to the names of everyone involved in the production – nobody is given a title aside from the principal cast, director, writer and composer, and each name is a first initial with the surname listed after. It's highly reminiscent of a kindergarten class roster, as produced by the class itself. That pretty much tells you what you need to know about Ponyo.
Overall (dub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ The usual sumptuous Ghibli production, perfectly geared toward its audience, excellent English voice cast.
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