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Ponyo

August 17, 2009

PonyoPoster

Often times, films are marketed as “family movies,” and most times these films put the parents to sleep and only keep the kids marginally entertained. Ponyo, the latest film from Studio Ghibli director and legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, couldn’t have had everyone’s eyes more glued to the movie screen. Granted, my family consists of Studio Ghibli fans, and maybe it was our adoration of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous work that kept our eyes as wide as the film’s characters throughout our movie experience. But no one in my family that attended Ponyo was under nineteen. The children in the theater, however, were the real judges. And this is reasonable; children are the target audience here. As important as our “oo”s and “ah”s were, their interjections were key, ranging from laughs, sounds of surprise, questions, and if it could make a sound, their amazed silence. I’ll bet close to the same emotions were running through my head as well. Miyazaki’s films often have a way of making a child out of everyone; everything you see is new.

PonyoSosuke

Which is not to say that every Miyazaki film is for children. 1997’s Princess Mononoke, rated PG-13, was intense even when I was thirteen (I feel sorry for all the parents who thought they were bringing their kids to another Disney Princess movie). 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle was often times violent and melancholy, and probably went over most kids’ heads. Even Miyazaki’s commercial breakout and one of the best children’s films ever made, the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro, was sometimes a drama about difficult emotions and problems associated with growing up. Ponyo is a bonafide children’s movie, although it may contain some moments that have bigger consequences that children may only understand the basic ideas of (a complexity of relationships, unconditional acceptance of others and a subtle environmentalism among them; and really, who doesn’t like their kids to learn from a movie?). The film, about a small boy named Sosuke and his newly found pet goldfish Ponyo, plays out and even looks like a children’s book, with colorful landscapes and objects that explode with pastel and crayola-esque animation. The story, like that of many children’s books, is basic and fundamental, and yet completely new; I never had any idea what would happen next, and was delighted by each turn of events.

Sosuke (voiced by the youngest, least well known Jonas brother Frankie Jonas) lives in a pretty normal world, in a house on a green cliff by the sea with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) and sometimes his father Koichi (Matt  Damon), who is a sailor and spends most of his days out at sea (to the great distress of Lisa). Sosuke spends his days at school while Lisa works at the retirement home next door, which is inhabited by perhaps the most charming set of old ladies in the history of old ladies. Once Sosuke finds and subsequently loses the little human-faced goldfish Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, yet another teen pop star’s younger sibling), his world floods with excitement. It turns out that Ponyo is the daughter of an undersea wizard-type figure named Fujimoto, and thus Ponyo isn’t exactly a normal goldfish. Her character is, like Miyazaki’s other great characters, electrifying and vibrant and can’t help but leave the secondary characters in the dust, as compelling and real as they are. When Ponyo licks a drop of blood off of a cut on Sosuke’s finger, everything changes: Ponyo begins to transform into a human girl, the sea rages with Fujimoto’s search for his daughter and the moon draws closer to the earth, causing a massive flood. Ponyo sets out to find her new friend Sosuke again while a storm brews behind her.

PonyoUnderwater

Visually, Ponyo may rest at the top of Miyazaki’s animation achievements. Like virtually all of his other films, Ponyo is done completely by hand and contains no computer animation whatsoever, a labor of love. According to IMDB, the first twelve seconds of the film contain over 1,600 hand drawn frames and I can believe it completely. The grand total is approximately 170,000 separate images, a record for Miyazaki’s long career. This may seem like a colossal amount of material for a one hundred minute film, and it is, but many of the images are charmingly simple, more than any other Miyazaki film to date. Sometimes frames contain mostly solid colors and well defined lines, and some other times the animation rivals the startling complexity of his most involved works, particularly the incredibly detailed Howl’s Moving Castle. Already an expert in the animation of nature, Miyazaki has the entire ocean to work with here, and he does wonders with it: thousands of jellyfish, prawn and amoebae float freely in the water, crabs ranging in size from tiny to humongous sidle along the ocean floor, enormous whales swim slowly through the ocean, waves represented as giant fish terrifyingly crash into the shore and hundreds of Ponyo’s young sister goldfish act both in synchronization and independence.

Ponyo has a startling amount of material and yet feels somehow quaint, like an elongated short film. For that reason, it resembles the surprisingly short 2002 Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns (another kids film), more than anything. Even at one hundred minutes, it feels like forty tops, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat for most of it regardless of your age. The plot contains a few head-scratchers for Western audiences. Koichi prays to the goddess of mercy, Ponyo relieves an infants cold by rubbing her face against his, and unlike other children’s fantasy films, the adults here seem to be in on the magic too. These hitches probably need no explaining or hard thinking for their homeland audience; we need to remember that Ponyo comes from the other side of the planet. Miyazaki rightfully refuses to compromise his home country’s way of life or his vision for the sake of commercial viability. For that reason alone, Ponyo will likely never receive the success or acclaim that other undersea kids films such as The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo have, at least in the West, though it stands tall by them in quality. But perhaps these few alien concepts are all for the better. They may only reinforce that Ponyo, like Miyazaki’s other work, is like nothing you have ever seen before, except maybe only somewhat like his other work. Half of everything children see is brand new. We often take this for granted, and even forty odd years into his career, Hayao Miyazaki can still completely engross everyone in the theater, and in the process even the adults are reminded of where they came from.

PonyoShore

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