Judge Clark Douglas hates humans and keeps his daughter in a bubble. Mwahahaha!
Welcome to a world where anything is possible.
"I'd let a fish lick me if it'd get me out of this wheelchair."
Facts of the Case
A little boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) finds an unusual little fish and decides to keep it as a pet, giving it the name "Ponyo." Little does he know that the fish is actually the daughter of Fujimoto (Liam Neeson, Taken), the powerful king of the sea. Fujimoto quickly retrieves his daughter, but Ponyo's brief encounter with Sosuke has filled her with a yearning to be a human being. She soon sees her dream come to life, but will she be meet the many challenges required for her to remain in human form forever?
When Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo was released theatrically, it played in a grand total of 800 theatres. That may seem small, but it represents the biggest theatrical release a Miyazaki film has ever had in the U.S. I think that's a shame, because his movies are consistently magical experiences. 2009 gave us an abundance of superb animated films, and Miyazaki's latest is among those esteemed ranks. First we witnessed the nightmares of a young girl coming to life in Coraline; and later we saw the dreams of an old man becoming a reality in Up. Continuing along those lines, Ponyo has a certain dream-like flow that I find immensely appealing.
Ponyo won me over instantly with the gorgeous animated sequence that opens the film, a lovingly hand-drawn portrayal of life under the sea. It's a word-free sequence, relying only on Joe Hisaishi's spellbinding score and the slightly trippy visuals to draw us into this unusual new world. The story is loosely based on the original "Little Mermaid" fairy tale, but the plot is a surprisingly fluid element that frequently gives way to Miyazaki's child-like dream logic. Moreso than most of his recent films (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, all excellent), Ponyo is geared at young children in a very refreshing way. Too many children's films either talk down to kids in a condescending manner or spend most of their time offering winks and nudges for adults. This one has a unique knack for recognizing precisely what will fascinate the young (not to mention the young at heart) and allowing itself to veer off the beaten path in order to explore these elements.
Despite the surreal nature of certain visuals, Miyzaki works hard to ensure that no child will be confused. Important plot points are emphasized carefully, as if to say, "Okay, make sure you've got a grip on just what we're doing, because it's going to get a little crazy in a minute." There are no in-jokes for adults, none of that tiresome snark that has infested so many animated films. This is a good story, and that is that.
The characters are simple but very distinct and memorable: The stern king of the sea (an authoritative Liam Neeson), the ethereal queen of the sea (an elegant Cate Blanchett), an ordinary working-class mom (a sincere and convincing Tina Fey), an ordinary working-class dad (an effective Matt Damon), some curious old women (voiced with amusing subtlety by Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman), a kind-hearted and adventurous child (Frankie Jonas, whose voice is surprisingly thoughtful and innocent) and an endlessly enthusiastic little fish-girl (Noah Cyrus, whose undeniable glee makes me smile). If you're worried about the Disney kids being included simply because they're siblings of popular celebrities, well, they were undoubtedly included for that purpose, but we can be grateful that they actually do a rather excellent job with their parts.
When we reach a place that is colorful and beautiful, we spend time exploring it rather than just merely leaving it in the background. What's that thing in the corner? Oh, what sort of creature is that? What's that shiny thing over there? Gracious, this film is lovely to look at. The traditional animation seems to have been created with such passion and tenderness; it makes most CGI look positively sterile by comparison. Fortunately, the film has been blessed with a wonderful hi-def transfer that allows the viewer an opportunity to fully absorb the stunning beauty of the animation. The colors are bright and warm, detail is sublime and the best animated sequences are truly feasts for the eyes. I could just look at this movie all day long. There are moments that I simply had to pause and admire. Audio is excellent, with Joe Hisaishi's rapturous score coming through with immense strength and clarity. Dialogue is resonant and clean, with the voice of Liam Neeson particularly carrying a lot of rich weight. The sound design isn't too complicated, but what's there is very well-distributed and quite immersive.
The supplemental package is sort on the bitty side, but I suppose we have to be grateful that the film is even being made available in hi-def (as of the writing of this review, no other Miyazaki films have been released on Blu-ray). Here's a rundown of what's included on the disc:
• Bonus View: This feature allows you to watch the film with the original Japanese storyboards displayed in the corner of the screen. A fun way to watch the film upon re-viewing it, I suppose.
• Film Introduction (3 minutes): Some of the folks at Disney spend a bit of time praising Miyazaki and talk about the joy of creating the English-language version of the film.
• A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter (3 minutes): Two animation legends sit down and have a nice little chat about Ponyo.
• Creating Ponyo (4 minutes): A nice little featurette in which Miyazaki informs us that Ponyo is, "A movie for five-year-olds," and that it should be viewed from the perspective (he considers it geared at children slightly younger than those he was aiming for with My Neighbor Totoro).
• Ponyo and Fujimoto (3 minutes): Miyazaki offers his thoughts on the character development of Ponyo and her stern father. It's interesting that he regards Fujimoto as a reflection of the average modern Japanese father.
• The Nursery (2 minutes): Producer Toshio Suzuki talks about creating one of the film's primary locations.
• The Producer's Perspective—Telling the Story (2 minutes): Suzuki continues to talk about creating the film.
• The Locations of Ponyo (9 minutes): An excerpt from a Japanese documentary that offers an overview of the story and explores some of the different locations used in the film (both locations based on actual places and fictional fantasy worlds).
• Scoring Miyazaki (7 minutes): A look at the creation of Joe Hisasishi's marvelous score. All of Hisaishi's work for Miyazaki is excellent, but this one is exceptional even by that standard. Though Hisaishi is more or less a household name in Japan, his work is woefully unappreciated here in North America.
• Behind the Microphone—The Voices of Ponyo (6 minutes): A brief and enjoyable piece about the actors employed to voice the English-language version. I was unsurprised to learn that a ten-year-old girl was the one responsible for deciding that Ms. Cyrus and Mr. Jonas should be cast in their respective roles.
• Original Japanese Trailers (3 minutes): These are kind of cute.
• Enter the Lands: An interactive feature that allows you to learn about the worlds of all of Miyazaki's films. Basically a collection of cheesy trailers, but decent enough.
• DVD Copy: I continue to wholeheartedly approve of adding DVD copies to releases like this one, as it allows kids to take the film with them on car trips or watch it in a different room that might not have a Blu-ray player.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Odds are that children will appreciate the virtues of the basic story more than most grown-ups will. Otherwise, I have no complaints. Well, I have one more complaint. That Cyrus/Jonas pop song that plays over the closing credits concludes the film on an inappropriately jarring note.
Yes, Ponyo is intended for children (it is not an "all-ages" film like many of Miyazaki's other efforts), but I was nonetheless fascinated by it. This is a marvel to behold, a valuable opportunity to watch a master craftsman doing what his does best. It is like listening to a great children's storyteller: the story may be intended for the young ones, but it is a delight to witness the love and care that the storyteller puts into their tale.
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