I remember vividly my first Miyazaki
experience, sitting in the dark at the Lyric Theater
in college, watching Princess Mononoke
. I had managed to avoid anime club in high school (my tastes ran more towards spending what little money I had on Magic cards), so my experiences with it were limited to perhaps a couple of viewings of Akira
on VHS (the famed '88 dub
). Mononoke struck me, though: there's a moment towards the end where an arrow is being aimed at Ashitaka from a distance, which then jump cuts to a close-up of him pulling the arrow out of mid-air and firing it back at his attackers. The whole grabbing-the-projectile bit has been done before, sure, but there's an incredible sense of casualness about the moment here: there's no slow motion or swelling soundtrack to indicate that This Is An Awesome Thing That Is Happening. It's just another detail to Miyazaki, but it's that attention to detail that separates him from other animator/directors that are working today.
So although I still don't know why cowboys enjoy bebop or why ghosts live in shells, new Miyazakis are something of an event for me, arriving as they do only every three or four years. Ponyo, his latest creation, is a return to the G-rated whimsy of films like My Neighbor Totoro
. As a children's film, it isn't quite as enchanting as Totoro
was to adult viewers – it's still one of my ultimate litmus tests to see if a girl's worth dating – but it's still a delightful movie.
Like so many other of Miyazaki's films, Ponyo comes laden with environmental themes – everywhere in his works there is a notion of an imbalance in man's relationship with nature, and a need for correction. He's never preachy (see: Star Trek IV
) or didactic (see: An Inconvenient Truth
), however - he doesn't overreach in his condemnation of man's evil ways, etc. Instead, he uses metaphors and anthropomorphism to get his message across, and Ponyo
is perhaps his most perfect example of those storytelling devices, offering a wonderful, entertaining story for the youngsters while still affording multiple interpretations to grown-up viewers.
Loosly based on The Little Mermaid
takes place in a colorful little seaside town where Sosuke, a young boy, lives with his mother Lisa; unbeknown to them, Fujimoto, a kind of sea-wizard charged with keeping the ocean calm, lives a bit offshore with his daughter, Ponyo, a kind of goldfish princess who Fujimoto attempts to keep locked away. After escaping one day, meeting Sosuke, and imbibing a bit of his blood, Ponyo becomes obsessed with returning to the surface world, and in the process of escaping (again), she undoes her father's magic, causing fantastic tsunamis and tidal waves to start pounding Sosuke's town – and thus begins everyone's journey to restore balance between the humans and the sea that they both rely upon and are in the process of destroying.
The entire thing is very cute – there's a great moment where Sosuke's mother is asking Ponyo about her father and she replies “He hates humans! He keeps me in a bubble!” to Lisa's great confusion – but, perhaps, a bit too much so. There is no real villain here (although one of Miyazaki's trademarks is to portray someone as a villain only to reveal their good side late in the film, as is the case with Fujimoto), but, more importantly, no real sense of danger – while the seas boil and the waves threaten the town, you never really feel as though Sosuke and Lisa are in peril; there's always a sense that the story will resolve itself peacefully, and that no one will get hurt. While that's no doubt appropriate for a children's movie, it's worth contrasting Ponyo
with My Neighbor Totoro
in this regard – even though Totoro
was similarly G-rated, there were still some fairly scary moments, such as when Mei runs away and is feared to have drowned, to the point where the villagers pull a child's shoe out of a lake. The lack of that kind of drama entrenches Ponyo
more firmly into the “movie for kids” category, rather than as something that adults might enjoy watching on their own. Which is not a knock on the film, by any means; just something worth noting if you're out looking for an evening's entertainment.
Despite the relatively easygoing nature of the film, it's still a beautiful piece of art to look at. CGI has been employed, albeit sparingly, in Miyazaki's last few works; here, though, every frame of the movie was reportedly hand-drawn, with over 160,000 cels of animation being created. It's a credit to Miyazaki's genius that he can make something as simple as someone putting their groceries down to open a door into a memorable moment – the wealth of detail here is really astonishing, and watching Ponyo run around the surface world, delighted at everything she sees and tastes (especially ham), is quite touching. The movie also has an immensely colorful pastel look to it, making it feel as though the backgrounds could have come directly out of an illustrated children's book.
An integral part of any animated film is going to wind up being the voice cast, and Disney (who's been handling the Studio Ghibli distribution tasks in America for the last decade or so) does, as usual, a decent job of finding a boatload of celebrities (Tina Fey
, Matt Damon
, Cate Blanchett
, Liam Neeson
, etc.) to fill out the roles here. This being Disney, however, there's a bit of crassness in the casting of the younger siblings of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers
(no doubt fresh from the Disney Labs
) as the voices of Ponyo and Sosuke. Be sure to look for them in a Disney Channel sitcom about band practice in a high school for talented, photogenic youths in five years or so. Ponyo
, while not Miyazaki's best work ever, is still a delight to watch, perhaps especially with children. Like most Pixar
films, Miyazaki's earlier G-rated features were just as palatable to adults as they were to youngsters, but the youth of the main characters here (they both appear to be around five years old), as well as the unsubtlety of some of the themes (there are a few occasions where information that could easily be inferred is instead plainly stated) makes Ponyo
a bit more skewed towards the younger set than Totoro
or Kiki's Delivery Service
were. Again, that's not to say that Ponyo
isn't worth watching, just that expectations might need a little tempering if you're to get the most out of this little fable.