Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ponyo Review (ポニョ)

Since yesterday was my birthday (I guess it’s technically still my birthday in America), I gave myself the present of going to see Ponyo, the just released new film by world-renowned Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎 駿). “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” (崖の上のポニョ) literally translates to “Ponyo on the top of the cliff.” The official English title is, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.” Since the film won’t likely be localized and released by Disney until the holidays in America, this is my early review.

I have seen every Miyazaki directed feature. While this is the fourth Miyazaki film I have seen on the big screen (the first was Princess Mononoke), Ponyo marks the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing the original Japanese voice work in a theater setting. With no disrespect meant to the American voice actors who dub the films into English, the native Japanese voice work is simply superior in every way.

Without giving much away, the story of the film centers around the small female goldfish creature named Ponyo (pictured above) who makes her way from the depths of the ocean to the human world above. During her brief trip to the shore, Ponyo has a chance encounter with a five-year-old boy named Sosuke. As the two become fast friends, Ponyo longs to escape her underwater world and become a human girl.

This film has much more in common with Miyazaki’s fantasy classic My Neighbor Totoro than it does with his more mature and emotionally complex films like Mononoke and Nausicaä. Like Totoro, Ponyo seems content to present the audience with a simple narrative concept, and display it imaginatively onscreen. While we know from our Disney upbringing with the likes of Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid that Ponyo will eventually become a human girl, the joy lies in watching the journey through the eyes of these superbly realized animated characters.

While the story may be on the simplistic side, the film still packs all of Miyazaki’s trademarks, from his inventive vehicular designs, to the strange and fantastical creatures that lurk just outside our view, to his Ozu-inspired “pillow shots” of the serene crashing waves and blowing wind. The film even gently hits upon the Miyazaki staple of environmental conservation, showing an ocean floor littered with debris. The sight of Ponyo swimming in the ocean, only to get stuck in an empty glass jar, does wonders to bring home the point that we all inhabit this earth together, and should work to take care of it.

Ponyo on the Cliff was completely hand drawn and animated by Studio Ghibli. The opening scene of the film, which introduces the viewer to Ponyo’s underwater world, simply has to be seen on the big screen! There are so many layers of animation, with so many unique characters moving about, that one cannot help but be amazed. Every single element was drawn by hand!

Later moments in the film feature superbly realized water and storm effects. One critical scene, that I dare not spoil, had the Japanese couple in the seats next to me saying “wow” out loud over and over again. Not only is this film a reminder that Miyazaki is our best living animator, it is a reminder in this age of CG films that hand drawn animation still has the power to amaze.

Aesthetically, the film utilizes a warm color palette and round shapes. The result is that the look of the film often evokes watercolor paintings, a first for Miyakazi. As is always the case, Miyazaki depicts the children (Sosuke and Ponyo) with incredible realism and heart. I find myself always mesmerized by the lifelike human movement that the characters exhibit onscreen.

Ponyo is just about the cutest character you’ve seen in a film since Totoro himself. Amazingly, while Ponyo is a nonstop squealing bundle of energy throughout the entire film, she never becomes annoying or grating to the audience. This is a testament to Miyazaki’s ability to create loveable creature characters, whose human hearts shine through their fantastical exteriors, often with very few spoken words.

The words that are spoken in the film are superb all around, thanks to a wonderful cast, with special credit going to the real-life children who voice Sosuke and Ponyo. While you’ll see no singing Rastafarian crabs in this film, there is an insanely catchy Ponyo theme song that you’ll be humming on the car ride home. The score, composed by Studio Ghibli veteran “Joe” Hisaishi, fits the lighthearted fantasy film well, while never quite achieving the level of greatness set by his previous themes from Mononoke and Spirited Away.

If I had one small criticism, it is that, in my opinion, the film rushes us a little too fast towards the finish line. I would have enjoyed a bit more quality time with goldfish Ponyo and her world under the sea at the film’s outset. A byproduct of this forward momentum is that, at times, the supporting adult characters can be as one-dimensional as their child counterparts are vivid and lifelike. Two key adult characters have barely enough screen time, let alone character development, to make their actions during the film’s conclusion seem weighted and natural.

These small personal gripes aside, Gake no Ue no Ponyo is an incredibly enjoyable film. If you are a fan of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, it is a no-brainer that you will want to see this film (and on the big screen too!). If you are a fan of animation, you will certainly want to see this film. If you are a fan of…okay enough of this!

Listen! Just see this film when it comes out in America or wherever you live! Okay? You’ll smile and you’ll feel happy while watching. This feeling of happiness will stay with you for a long while after viewing. In my book, that’s all we can ask for from a good movie.



theglowingpear said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY GAIJIN! Sorry it's a few hours belated. Glad you gave yourself a birthday present and wrote about it in a way that would make NYT movie reviewers green with prose-envy.

How's the homeland? Have you seen any of your old friends or had any interviews yet?

jijyo said...

Ponyo!!! I like your text about Ponyo, thank you Gaijin-san. I must see!!!

Anonymous said...

You said it correctly, the last quarter of the movie was very dissapointing.
Motivations were very unclear and the ending wasn't satisfying either.

It ended they way it did because "they" wanted it that way. NOT because the story or characters made it believable or a work towards a natural conclusion.

I like most of Miyazaki's works but this one seemed to be made almost on autopilot without questioning the story themselves.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Two of my kids are adopted from S Korea so they know what it's like being surrounded by caucasians. I liked that the characters look asian. Thanks for the review kid, I will take my kids to see it when it comes out by house in Minnesota on Friday. Oh, Happy belated birthday! In Korea, they really only celebrate the first birthday and the 70th. Hope it's not that way in Japan.