Aug 17, 2009


On a sweltering day, nothing more refreshing than to dive into an air conditioned theater to see an animated film about a tiny, feisty, creature of the sea. Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated feature and it is very beautiful. I was extremely moved by the magic of the animation. I confess it made me cry several times. It's absolutely gorgeous. The way Miyazaki and his artists capture the floating underwater world, the way they render the spectacular force of a typhoon, their devoted appreciation of nature, their generous explosions of fancy, the movement, which is exhilarating yet never frantic, Miyazaki's bounteous imagination, it is all magnificent. I think he comes from the tradition of great Japanese artists like Hokusai. Like them, he brings nature alive with his artistry.
As the implacable Magnificent Arepa points out, the problem with American animated features is that they think they are action movies. They are exhausting. And that's after five minutes. They seem to be made for people with ADD. They're all crazy, frantic, dizzying movement, but they rarely stop to breathe and observe the beauty of the natural world. Everything has to be over the top. They are technical show-offs, but they have no soul. (Haven't seen Up, but I'm skeptical).
Everybody says it's better to see Miyazaki's movies with subtitles, because the dubbing tends to sound cheesy. This is no exception. The stellar cast includes Liam Neeson (I think miscast), Tina Fey (totally obnoxious as the Mom) Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Chloris Leachman, Betty White and Lily Tomlin and none of them bring anything particularly spectacular to the voices, although the elderly ladies are very sweet. However, the voices of the kids are quite well done. Ponyo, nicely voiced by Noah Cyrus and Sosuke, voiced by Frankie Jonas, are more natural and funnier than the adults, which is a relief, because I expected cringing. We went at 2 pm, so there were plenty of kids in the audience. The audience for Miyazaki is a mix of children with parents and random adults, some of which look like they are not allowed anywhere near a playground, but that's another story. It was delightful to hear the tiny hands applauding and the little voices hooting in recognition when the Totoro Studio Ghibly logo appeared (nothing of the sort when the overdone Disney castle showed up).
For the record: I want to have a live Totoro. That's the only pet I countenance having. I want it now.
The movie starts with a breathtaking underwater sequence, mercifully devoid of dialogue, and there are many intensely beautiful moments, including a magnificent rainstorm, an island underwater, and the gorgeous depths of the sea.
My beef with the story, which is reminiscent of The Little Mermaid (the H.C. Andersen tale), is that there are gaping holes in it. Do we really believe that a mother, even a reckless one, would leave a five year old alone in the house during a typhoon? Even in a sweet little island in Japan? Miyazaki lets children know they can explore the world, and that there is the potential for darkness out there. I love that he has a five year old striking a match and lighting a candle. Don't Try This At Home, Kids! But at the same time, the intimations of potential grief are brought in and quickly swept away. So I wonder if the kids feel the same unease as me. I was mortified at the possibility of the father's ship lost at sea during a storm. And more mortified about Sosuke losing his mom. Miyazaki's kids are strong and resourceful, though they still need their mommies. It's right to be gentle: Miyazaki doesn't want to traumatize entire generations (remember Bambi and Dumbo?), but there is something a little too pat about easily resolved dangers.
The story is about love and loss, and it is much better at love than it is at loss, which is perhaps the way it should be, since it is for children. The way Ponyo falls in love and then defies everything because of her love is amazing. She has this incredible power, this focused, overpowering energy that anybody who has ever been in (early) love will feel. And I loved the irony that because of this explosion of feeling, she unleashes the forces of nature in a destructive way. Too much love of the human, too little respect for the sea.
Our damage to the environment is handled very eloquently and without preaching. I wonder if the kids get it that all our crap ends up floating in the beautiful sea.
But I guess mine are minor nitpicks. Ponyo is gorgeous and lovely and deeply moving.

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