Do you know who Hayao Miyazaki is? If you’re reading this blog, you should. But just in case you wandered in here accidentally while trying to google lolcats, Here’s the skinny: Hayao Miyazaki is basically the Steven Spielberg of animation in Japan. He makes animated feature films with his production company, Studio Ghibli, and is considered a master at what he does. He’s responsible for such anime classics as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke and the Oscar-winner Spirited Away, and Japan basically considers him a national treasure.
And I sometimes find it difficult to stand the guy.
Don’t get your feathers ruffled just yet. I adore most of his movies, such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Porco Rosso, The Castle of Cagliostro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s the other half I have trouble stomaching. I think Nausicaa is a pretty standard fantasy adventure starring one of the most insufferably optimistic heroines I’ve ever seen. The character Nausicaa pisses sunshine and farts rainbows. I cant stand it! Castle in the Sky is basically the blueprint for every Japanese RPG ever made, so by the time I saw it, there wasn’t much new for me to glean from its picked-over bones. I don’t really enjoy Princess Mononoke‘s setting or the fact that the ending doesn’t do any of the preceding 119 minutes any justice. In fact, it’s a huge problem with Miyazaki’s movies in general. They don’t end; they just stop. You’re lucky if you have even a few minutes of falling action after the climax. And then there’s probably my least favorite: My Neighbor Totoro. It’s a movie aimed at very young children, so I probably wasn’t the target audience when I saw it, but it’s still an aimless creature that tries to get by on cuteness and whimsy in lieu of having story or even the barest shred of conflict. I’m sure if I was a toddler I’d love it. I can’t ever say that Miyazaki’s movies are outright crap. They’re always beautifully, painstakingly animated. But I do occasionally have problems with what Miyazaki chooses to do with all his abundance of talent and resources.
And recently, Miyazaki’s latest yarn, the child-oriented Ponyo, washed up on our shores. Was this a hit or a miss?
Ponyo is about a little boy named Sosuke who lives in a seaside village. His father is busy on a fishing boat and his harried mother takes care of senior citizens, so Sosuke finds ways to entertain himself. One day he happens upon a goldfish he names Ponyo. It seems like an especially clever and expressive fish, and they take a liking to each other. Little does Sosuke know, however, that Ponyo is actually one of the daughters of a sea wizard, who forbids his children from having contact with the surface world. Ponyo decides she wants to become a human and live with Sosuke, defying her father’s wishes. What follows is a test of Ponyo’s and Sosuke’s affections for each other which may hold the fate of the world in the balance.
I say may because honestly, any and all peril in this movie is extremely vaguely defined. The film makes a few references to Ponyo’s straddling between being magic and being human disrupting the balance of nature and the moon crashing down to the earth in response, but it’s never really allowed to take on any sort of dramatic gravity. Ponyo is all about an effervescent, dauntless charm, much like My Neighbor Totoro. However, it’s also more structured than that movie. Ponyo has a good 60 minutes or so where there’s a defined plot that is steadily moving forward. Totoro was largely an 86 minute canvas for the titular forest creature and the little children to have meandering play sessions on. Ponyo resists this for as long as it can, but it does eventually succumb to its younger target audience and just becomes about cute expressions and adorable quirks and lush backdrops. If My Neighbor Totoro was intended for 5-year-olds and Kiki’s Delivery Service for 10-year-olds, I’d say Ponyo is squarely aimed at 7-year-olds.
And 7-year-olds are likely not to question some of the things I find fault with in the film. Again, Miyazaki shows that he’s far less interested in a movie’s end than he is in a movie’s middle. I already mentioned the somewhat dubious attempt at reaching a climax, but even after that, the movie has no idea what it’s supposed to do and just ends abruptly. Granted, it’s done in a fairly adorable way, but that should go without saying for a movie like this. Everything it tries its hand at is done adorably. But I gotta talk about one thing that bothered me as a crusty old guy, and to do that, I gotta venture into spoiler territory for the remainder of the paragraph, so fair warning to all of you! Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father, says that in order for Ponyo to become a real human, Sosuke needs to pledge his love toward her and kiss her. Standard stuff, right? Sosuke does all this and Ponyo becomes a real girl and everyone’s happy! EXCEPT THAT SOSUKE’S, LIKE, FIVE. What on earth does this kid know about anything? Does he really understand the sort of promise and responsibility he’s being saddled with? He’s going to have to be with Ponyo for the rest of his life, otherwise it’ll be sort of cruel to make her a human. I mean, a five year old can maybe take care of a goldfish. But looking after a person is something I wouldn’t trust most people with! I mean, honestly, his mom’s gonna do most of the work clothing and feeding Ponyo. That poor lady’s already running around all over the place having a full-time job and raising a child mostly by herself. Plus, kids that age are just fickle. The movie takes place over the course of a few days. Who’s to say Sosuke won’t get tired of Ponyo, like, a week from then? And then you can’t guarantee they won’t just grow apart over time as they grow up. What’s really sort of unsettling to me about the whole thing is that while it’s Sosuke’s job to kiss Ponyo after everything’s said and done and make her a real girl, he doesn’t seem very interested in doing that. At the end of the day, it’s Ponyo that kisses him during a moment when he’s distracted. I realize this is a kids’ movie and we should all assume that their love is the purest and longest-lasting love of all time, but I’m not sure I bought it.
And while the plot description might immediately bring up Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid as an influence, I’d give equal responsibility to Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. That also featured a somewhat lonely young boy who develops a strong bond toward a creature that doesn’t belong in his world. Hell, Ponyo even heals a wound on Sosuke’s hand when she meets him. There’s also the subtle hints of the difficulties of a home with an absent father. While E.T. is more conflicted in its portrayal of a divorced family, Ponyo paints a more optimistic picture about a household where the father is merely gone a large amount of the time, rather than being completely absent. Sosuke seems to understand and respect this a lot more than his mother. Not surprising that Miyazaki paints a sympathetic picture of a workaholic father, since apparently he was absent for a large amount of his own son’s childhood, working on his films.
Ponyo is an absolutely charming, gorgeous movie. You should really expect nothing less from Studio Ghibli, given the time and money they spend on their projects. The animation’s fluid, the characters varied and attractive to look at, the backgrounds obscenely gorgeous… Really, every backdrop in the movie seems like it was lovingly rendered in colored pencil or something rather than drawn on a computer. There’s a warmth to the film that’s difficult to achieve through digital animation, so kudos to everyone at Ghibli for making a movie just as beautiful, maybe moreso, than Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. The score’s pretty awesome, too, with a great opening theme sung by an opera singer and a lilting, waltz-like underwater quality permeating through the whole sound. Like most Joe Hisaishi scores, it’s difficult to appreciate separate from the movie, but it’s something that definitely helps elevate the scenes in the movie. What DOESN’T elevate the movie, though, is the awful Radio Disney-style remix of the Japanese credits song, sung by the English voice actors with plenty of phat beatz and auto-tuners. Blech.
And about those English voice actors. What a motley crew. A bizarre mish-mash of Disney Channel stars, Hollywood B-listers and Liam Neeson. Yes, that’s right, Liam Neeson plays Ponyo’s cranky father (natch) and is in the same movie with Miley Cyrus’ little sister, one of those Jonas creatures, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Tina Fey, Betty White, Matt Damon and Cloris Leachman. As usual it’s about the most random cast Disney could’ve possibly assembled, but they all do a pretty serviceable job, especially Lily Tomlin who gets to steal the show as a hilariously grumpy old lady. I don’t think either of the kids have a future in acting, but that’s not really an obstacle in a movie like this.
So, really, while this movie is reaching an older audience than My Neighbor Totoro, it’s not older by much. But even so, it’s still mostly a movie that will capture the imagination and attention of older movie-goers who appreciate animation. It’s not as preachy or directionless as some of Miyazaki’s lesser movies, so I feel pretty confident recommending this to people. My one caveat is that if you’re the type of person that can only get into very serious dramas or expects a lot of guns or action, you really have no place here. Ponyo‘s a different sort of juvenile than most of the typical summer crowd. While Transformers or G.I. Joe might be juvenile because of their tired bathroom humor or their single-minded pursuit of explosions, Ponyo‘s juvenile in that it actually caters itself toward children. And if you have an inner child, you should have fun, too. Just turn off your cynical, thinking mind and let the colors and sounds wash over you like the waves of the ocean~