Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Theaters: Ponyo

Ponyo poster and IMPAwards link
I’m cheating a little putting PONYO in the theatrical category, I think, because the film is probably now at the end of its weirdly abbreviated theatrical run. In Kansas City, it is impossible to throw a brick five paces without hitting a multiplex; we have approximately eighteen kajillion screens, and a hefty assortment of art house theaters picking up the less mainstream business. PONYO, as best as I can tell, played one screen in all of this, in a multiplex in Merriam, Kansas, that took me way too long to reach. It’s not quite a wide release, but not a gradual rollout; even an art house release would have made more sense, frankly. So, if it’s already left your area, just keep this review around for future reference.

Hayao Miyazaki has, as far as I can tell, been on the brink of retirement for about 5 years now. At one point I had the impression that HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE was going to be his last film, and fortunately that’s not the case; the picture was good, but suffered from a convoluted and weirdly-adapted story. PONYO is a much simpler picture, and no less beautiful for it; in its lightheartedness and sheer appeal to cuteness, the film will remind Ghibli fans of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. While not quite up there with Miyazaki’s best, PONYO is unbelievably charming and creative.

Ponyo (voiced here by Noah Cyrus) is a goldfish, albeit one with a red body and human face, but everyone calls her a goldfish so I assume that’s an artistic choice. She escapes from the submarine of her father, a mysterious wizard (Liam Neeson) who regulates the life force of the ocean, and gets herself trapped in a glass jar before being rescued by a young boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas.) Being a little bit magic, she heals a cut on his finger, and this starts to transform her- she’s already learned to speak when the wizard Fujimoto shows up to reclaim her. But Ponyo has learned how to transform herself into a person, and, now in a kind of love with Sosuke, escapes again, this time in a tumultuous flood of magic and life that plays havoc with Fujimoto’s elixirs, and sets a major tropical storm on the coastal/island community where Sosuke lives with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey). The boy’s father, a sailor (voiced, briefly, by Matt Damon), is at sea when the storm hits, and for a while they fear he may be lost. And it seems Ponyo’s escape and the craziness she caused on Fujimoto’s sub has upset the balance of nature, filling the oceans with extinct Precambrian life and putting humanity in danger. Though no fan of humanity, Fujimoto knows something needs to be done, and turns for help to his great love, the sea goddess Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett).

The early parts of the film are the most beautiful and baffling, as Ponyo’s escape from a magic sub is presented almost entirely without any context. It’s a good while before we start getting explanations as to what in the Sam Hill is going on here, but for a long while this doesn’t matter, because Ponyo is very cute. Studio Ghibli has always had a special hold on the adorableness market, what with TOTORO’s dust bunnies, SPIRITED AWAY’s soot creatures and hamsters, etc. The sheer “aww” factor of the film is high from the start, and doesn’t diminish when the story gets going. As a human, Ponyo is sometimes too much in the way that excitable little children are; there’s still something magic about her, but you’ve met girls like her at some point.

Indeed, as weird as the whole story is, the human relationships are beautifully rendered. Sosuke’s family life is complex- his mom sometimes gets angry at his dad when he has to stay out at sea for another day or so, but it’s obviously because she misses him, and their relationship is portrayed in an amusing and realistic way. (Tina Fey really does some great voice work here, putting a lot of energy and texture into a character that’s not the kind we normally see her play.) There’s something poignant, though sadly underdeveloped, about Fujimoto’s troubled relationship with his goddess; he loves here, he tries so hard to please her that he’s turned against the world of men, it doesn’t seem like they can ever be together for long, but even when he goes too far in his zeal, she is always forgiving and hopeful. There’s also a subtle environmental theme to the picture, as in a lot of Ghibli pictures, and the ocean setting is particularly relevant since nowadays that seems to be where we’re doing the most damage.

The animation in PONYO has a childlike simplicity to it, moreso than other films by the studio- backgrounds in particular have a painted quality. It’s pretty consistently gorgeous, and there are some wonderfully subtle moments of expression, particularly when Ponyo meets a grouchy baby. There is, appropriately enough, a fluidity to the action and visuals- Ponyo becomes a little fishlike whenever she uses her magic, and slides back in a way that only animation can pull off. (There’s some dispute among animation fans over whether this film was completely hand drawn, but it certainly looks like it.)

I’m still not entirely sure whether I feel the film is too slight or just what it should be; there’s not a lot of suspense to the climax, per se, but that’s because we trust the characters so much by that point, and- again, like TOTORO- this is meant to be a light picture. The dubbing and overall translation of the picture is quite good, as diligent as Disney/Pixar’s other Ghibli imports, though the remixed version of the theme song is, well, not so much good.

But overall PONYO is terrific fun; it contains a lot of little touches that build up into a surfeit of good will, and the people in it are interesting and well-rounded enough to make us really care what happens to them, even if it rarely seems they’re in much danger. On top of this it’s a gorgeous picture that proves that 2-D animation can be as big-screen worthy as anything else. PONYO is one of those films that takes the adventurousness of childhood and expands it into a grand fantastic narrative, and in doing so rings true in a way that many children’s entertainments don’t. A marvelous little film about an adorable little fish.

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Grade: A

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