Originally posted at Sector70.com in the "Tom Servo Reviews" section August 15, 2009
Thought process while watching PONYO: "Wow! Oh wow! ... What!? Oh wow!"
The first thing that strikes you about Ponyo is that it is almost impossibly beautiful. It employs a loose Babar-like art style is a welcome departure from the recent trend towards lifeless photo-realism in animated productions. (I'm talking to you Polar Express.) Brush strokes and colored pencil lines are evident in the backgrounds making them feel as if they've been imported directly from the impressionist galleries of the world's greatest museums. long time fans of Hayao Miyazaki will recognize this look as being similar to his preproduction concept art. Here it has been carried over, seemingly unaltered, into the finished film, and the effect is perfect. It gives the art an electric quality that sets everything free and allows it to pulse with life. Even through the stilted American dubbing, the characters leap off of the screen with an irrepressible life and exuberance. So much exuberance that some audience members may be given reason to reflect upon how lucky they are to not have any children to keep control of in the theater. Hayao Miyazaki is a grandpa, and boy does it show! The over-riding message of the film seems to be that small children should be indulged in their every desire without a hint of restraint or thought to the consequences. This will no doubt make the film- already a huge hit in Japan- just as big with the ankle-biting set and the grandparents taking them to the movie. For the poor folks in the middle who actually have to take the kids home at night and keep them from breaking things, some eyebrows may be raised- mainly at the point where the childish whims of Ponyo, a baby fish who yearns to be human, causes a major natural disaster that threatens world-wide devastation in her escape from her "Sea Wizard" father's house. If you're expecting Ponyo to get even the mildest scolding for flooding a small town and displacing hundreds of people, don't hold your breath.
In case you're unaware, Miyazaki san has a bit of an ecological ax to grind. It's present in all of his works- the polluted river spirit in Spirited Away, the loggers in Princess Mononoke, the coal-burning war machines in Howl's Moving Castle... I don't have a good one for My Neighbor Totoro, but you get the idea. In Ponyo, it's our polluted waterways. Through it's stunning beauty, the film paints an uncomfortably realistic portrait of a litter-strewn shipyard. Plastic bottles, bits of trash and what look to be entire kitchen appliances bob in the harbor beneath simple, almost toy-like industrial cargo ships. Here again the art style serves to draw us further in. So often in an animated production, a heavy geometric object, like a ship, will plow through a shot as a big incongruous 3D model. Here they are traditionally animated, industrial yet somehow beautiful, and in perfect keeping with the visual tone of the rest of the film. This is what a movie looks like when a director knows what he's doing and cares.
Under the Sea (reference intentional) the world is alight with wonder. A mysterious figure in a candy-striped jacket drips a magical elixir into the sea beneath the bubble of air that hugs the bow of his ship. When the droplets strike the sea at the bubble's edge, they transform into playful jellyfish bobbing and twitching their way through the water. It's on one of these sprightly jellies that our little Ponyo hitches a ride to the surface where she will meet the five-year-old Sosuke and begin her adventure. The man is her father, a human who has rejected the surface world and plots it's destruction.
"You can't be human and magic" we're told, but Ponyo, as she is renamed by Souske- being a fish she couldn't introduce herself right away, (She needed a few minutes to get a hang of the language) is resolute. She will be a human and Souske's her man! The fact that Souske accidentally cuts his thumb rescuing her from a glass jar (eco-message), and Ponyo laps up his blood is her ticket up the genetic ladder. Weather or not she drank human blood is one of the first things that her father grills Ponyo on when he gets her back home. I know my parents were always keen on knowing what sorts of blood I had lapped up when I'd get away from them during the day. Ponyo soon proves that she's her father's fish-daughter by magicking herself up a pair of arms and legs and busting out again.
A lot of "hip" film reviewers like to get their rocks off going on about how Hiyo Miyazaki so daringly shrugs off "conventional storytelling" to do his own thing. If that's all you need as an audience member, then I heartily recommend Last Year at Marienbad (France 1961). It's unwatchable. You'll love it. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that Miyazaki makes movies for Americans. He doesn't. He makes movies for Japanese people, and you don't need to be exposed to a great deal of Japanese culture to realize that they don't go about things the same way that we do here in the West. Establishing the world, the tone and emotional impact comes first. Story structure, and often "logic" comes second. Japanese directors telling stories in a Japanese way is no more daring than a German supermarket clerk making PA announcements in German. The reason to love, adore and possibly even worship Miyazaki's films, from atop a big pile of Totoro, Catbus and Dust Sprite Plushies, is because they're good! Really, really good. Yes, some aspects of their weirdo Japanese sensibilities are guaranteed to set off alarms in American viewers' overly literal minds every once and awhile (like a tsunami not being that big of deal) but if you can get past it you'll have a great time. Bring the kids. Have fun. Then get the DVD, put on the subtitles to find out what the real dialogue is without a bunch of Disney kids mewling over it.