Ponyo Anime Review
Gake no Ue no Ponyo
Ponyo Above The Cliff
US Release By
Children's Fantasy Adventure
Under the sea lives a mysterious man gathering magic to fight the ever-spreading pollution of its waters. Among his children is a mischievous, inquisitive fish who sets out to explore. She finds herself rescued by 5-year-old Sousuke, who she forms a bond with, naming her Ponyo. When a magical accident bestows special powers on Ponyo and sets the sea wild, she will have the chance to visit her friend again and possibly to do much more.
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A quintessentially Miyazaki-ized retelling of The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is the beloved director's first straight-up children's film since My Neighbor Totoro two decades earlier. It is, as expected, a beautiful film, both in the spectacular set pieces and precise, endearing character animation of uncoordinated children going about their everyday lives. While the film half-heartedly adds some unnecessary large-scale drama, and despite the budget and scale, it is at heart a tight little character-driven children's movie. A wonderful one at that, with a believable, very human cast and a subtle moral. Both the original Japanese dialogue and Disney's English dub are uniformly well-acted, and Joe Hisaishi's grand orchestral score provides a contrast to the quieter scenes in which the sounds of nature take the place of music or dialogue.
Ponyo may fall just short of the masterpiece realm of Miyazaki's best movies, but so long as you don't try to scrutinize the details it's a playful, joyous, gorgeous little film that should enthrall young children and put a smile on the faces of their parents as well.
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Over twenty years after My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo marks the return to straight-up children's fare for maestro director Hayao Miyazaki. A quintessentially Miyazaki-ized retelling of The Little Mermaid, it falls just short of the realm of his masterpieces, but it is a playful, joyous little film that should enthrall young children and put a smile on the faces of their parents as well.
I once read an article that quoted Miyazaki as saying he starts with images and builds a story around them. It's a pretty sure bet that the image that spawned this film is the centerpiece scene of the newly-belegged Ponyo running ecstatically along the backs of giant fish-become-waves chasing after her human friend as his mother races up a winding cliffside road away from the roiling sea. This is the sort of scene so full of wonder you can watch an entire movie built around it and not feel like there's anything missing. It deserves its place among the selection of breathtakingly beautiful animated sequences Miyazaki is famed for.
This chaotic spectacle of a set piece is framed by delightful, meticulously-animated scenes of the exact opposite character that Miyazaki is equally well known for: The two young protagonists exploring the world around them and a night spent huddled at home with family while a storm rages outside. Later they sail across an inundated landscape, oddly peaceful in the midday sun despite the expected chaos of a town submerged by the ocean run amok.
These final-act scenes highlight my main issue with the film: Even in the face of a disaster that should be shocking or at least eerie--still-moored boats floating below the water, immense prehistoric creatures swimming along submerged roads, trees and hills poking up above the waterline--the film remains unwaveringly upbeat. This alone would merely have been an unusual juxtaposition the likes of which Spirited Away ran on. The adult characters, however, are incongruently cheerful once the storm ends, despite the obliteration of their town and an apparently apocalyptic situation. They're also far too credulous when a wizard and apparent goddess appear and claim that a 5-year-old is going to fix it.
While that may make it a frown-less children's film, it's the one area where the film falters as adult fare. The plot is in the same boat (pun intended). There is, technically, some plot about the world being destroyed by the uncontrolled release of magic if Ponyo doesn't decide to remain human. This clause pops up out of nowhere in a bit of exposition, and frankly feels like so much of an afterthought that I wonder why it's even there in the first place. The film also ends without so much as a glance back at what appears to have been a global, or at least national, catastrophe--we've seen satellites falling from the sky and mountains submerged--making the disaster into nothing but impressive window dressing. There's also a subplot with Ponyo's father, Fujimoto, who was apparently intending to at minimum end humanity's rule over the seas, if not wipe it out entirely. He presumably comes around somewhat after his daughter becomes a human, but the follow-through is forgotten by the end.
Totoro, in contrast, has no "plot" per se--the weird and magical world the protagonists cross paths with just is. Ponyo's rather brief and relatively hardship-free quest to become human has no need for something "bigger," and the addition feels tacked-on and superfluous. I had the same basic complaint about Miyazaki's previous film, Howl's Moving Castle; it seems like he's taking small-scale stories and trying to shoehorn large-scale drama into them where it's neither necessary nor comfortable. Maybe he feels like every movie needs to be an epic now.
If, however, you don't put any thought into it and just take in Ponyo for the playful character-driven story it is, you're almost guaranteed to enjoy yourself. The film's core message is about responsibility--Sousuke promises to protect Ponyo, and when disaster strikes he's left on his own to follow through and prematurely take on some adult responsibilities. This is gentle and low-key, as is the environmental message--we occasionally see the sea bottom fouled with human garbage, but a brief rant by Fujimoto is the only time anything explicit is mentioned. Sousuke, in another subtle social nod and a reflection of his maturity, has a closer relationship with his parents and the old ladies at the retirement home where his mother works than his classmates.
The small cast of characters is remarkable for their combination of life and believability. Of the two protagonists, Ponyo is cute and ebullient, making for appealing contrast with the quiet, precociously mature Sousuke. As an adult viewer, I personally thought the most memorable character was Sousuke's mother, Risa--youthful and energetic while still evoking the discipline of a parent.
One scene in particular stands out, in which she has a long-distance argument with her ship-bound husband in morse code via signal light. It humanizes her tremendously and makes for an entertaining scene on its own, while establishing how the family of two plus an often-absent but still loving husband and father operates. The impact might be less for children, but she is a wonderful role-model as an effective-yet-human parent. (It's also a fun unspoken joke that she drives like a maniac, although she's sure to keep everyone in a seatbelt.) Ponyo's father, an overly strict and rather addled wizard, provides the "bad example" contrast without being malicious--just misguided and a little self-centered.
On the topic of parenting, one odd thing that (fortunately) wasn't carried into Disney's English dub is that Sousuke refers to his parents by name, presumably to emphasize the informality of their family. This is even more unusual in Japan than in the US and (unintentionally, I assume) casts their relationship in an odd light that doesn't seem to match the normal, healthy dynamic onscreen. On a less-negative note, it's interesting to contrast this film with Totoro, which depicts a rather "Japanese" relationship between father and daughters; Ponyo in a way feels quite "Western," or at least universally modern, in its family dynamic.
Getting back to the characters, Ponyo's mother is a serene goddess of sorts personifying the ocean, but the sea itself is as much a character as any of the people in the film. At times the enchanted water is literally a living thing, watching with watery eyes, reaching out to try and grab people, or blurring the line between animal and its habitat as fish transform into immense, crashing waves. Other times the water is treated more realistically, though no less memorably, as in the eerily placid mirror of the final act. Having grown up within earshot of the ocean, I can say from experience that Ponyo does a marvelous job of capturing the everyday beauty of the waves, rocks, and seaside environs as well as its fearsome power when enraged by a storm.
Coming as no surprise, the painstakingly handcrafted art makes everyday locations--mainly the family home and the nearby town--just as beautiful as the fanciful scenes of magic and wonder. What is a bit surprising is how little of the action takes place beneath the waves--after a relatively realistic (and quite beautiful) opening sequence reminiscent of Finding Nemo, the main views of the sea come from the surface looking down. Symbolically, due to the geography and eventual flooding of much of the town, this serves to tie the land and the sea together more than contrast them.
On that note I found it interesting that, as angry and frightening as the sea can be in Ponyo, the film never presents any fear of drowning. There's a subtle magical explanation any time a character can breathe underwater, but even when they can't the threat is of being swallowed up by the sea, not specifically of being unable to breathe in it. I would interpret this as depicting a healthy respect for the ocean without tapping into a more primal fear, a nice touch for the target audience.
A final note on the visuals is that the look of the film is slightly different from other Ghibli productions. It goes without saying that the animation is lavish and beautiful. The realistic character animation is particularly charming--watching the uncoordinated Ponyo move about in human form is as much fun for the viewer as it is for her. The backgrounds are likewise lush and full of life, if a little more painterly than usual for Ghibli, and the character designs Miyazaki-standard. The animation, however, has, for lack of a better word, a bit of a gooey feel to it. Water, in particular, has a rounded, "thick" appearance somewhat different from the gentle precision of the sea in Porco Rosso or crisp realism of the sky in Castle in the Air. This goes well with the depictions of it as a living creature (and minimizes spray and foam, which must be quite a bit more difficult to animate convincingly), though I personally feel that a more naturalistic approach would have been prettier, as in the mirror-like surfaces in the comparatively static final act.
The small voice cast is quite good in both the original Japanese and Disney's English dub. The dub is full of high-profile talent, all of which are fittingly cast and true to the characters. The closest thing I have to a complaint would be Liam Neeson's take as Ponyo's father; while I love his voice, I found it a touch too confidence-inspiring for the slightly unhinged character. Then again, the Japanese version, voiced by George Tokoro, is a little gravely for his look, so neither is what I would have chosen. The Japanese cast, which as usual for Miyazaki has a marked lack of professional voice actors, is equally good. It's hard to single out any particular performance, but child actors Hiroki Doi as Sousuke and Yuria Nara as Ponyo are both impressively believable, and Tomoko Yamaguchi's Risa has a perfect blend of strong young woman and authoritative-yet-loving parent.
The musical score, by longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, is of grand, lively, classical flavor, with swelling orchestral flourishes and choral highlights. It's probably the most broadly cinematic of any of his scores, though the film's playful main theme is woven throughout. Also as usual, there are large swaths with little if any background music, letting the sounds of nature do the talking in lieu of dialogue or music.
There are, of course, no musical numbers, although the bubbly end theme is cute and likely to get stuck in your head for quite a while. The English version also adds an amusing techno remix after the faithful English version of the song. The opening credit sequence is quite a contrast--a surprisingly traditional operatic aria. It's a bit of an odd fit with the rest of the youth-flavored film and the simple storybook illustrations that accompany it, but it is quite beautiful.
In all, despite the attempts at large scale drama and spectacular set pieces, Ponyo is at heart a tight little character-driven children's movie. Between its memorable cast and lavish-yet-subtle visuals it is all but guaranteed to delight the young, and while it doesn't have quite the universal appeal of some of Miyazaki's other films, so long as you don't try to scrutinize the details it should still be an endearing, joyous ride for the young at heart.
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Leaving aside the Little Mermaid relationship (the films have remarkably little in common apart from basic concept), the most similar of Miyazaki's movies would be the much smaller-scale My Neighbor Totoro, followed by Spirited Away, which is both more fantastic and targeted at somewhat older audiences. The setting also bears some similarity to Porco Rosso (and in a roundabout way the story is an age-inverted version of a similar concept). Heidi, Girl of the Alps is also worth mentioning on account of the focus on children exploring the everyday world around them.
Notes and Trivia
Ponyo Up On The Cliff is an original story by Miyazaki loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.
Miyazaki has said that Sousuke is based on his own son at that age.
The town in which he lives is based on the real town of Tomonoura, a historic port town located toward the southern end of Japan's main island, in Hiroshima prefecture. After the movie was released a plan was made to build a bridge across the bay and fill part of it in to make room for parking lots and other economic development. This was fought by residents (Miyazaki also publicly spoke against it), and in 2009 a higher court decided against the plan, keeping the bay intact.
Though good numbers are hard to come by, Ponyo appears to be the most expensive anime film ever made, with a budget of 3.4 billion yen, well over the published figure of any other film even when adjusted for inflation (the previous record is a three-way near-tie at an adjusted 2.4 billion yen). Unsurprisingly, it also features more cels of animation than any other Ghibli film.
Ponyo saw relatively wide theatrical release in the US during the summer of 2009 in addition to a wildly successful theatrical run in Japan a year prior. It did well, grossing $15 million in the US. It also had a theatrical run in Australia around the same time, and is scheduled for a run in UK theaters in February 2010.
The US runtime is quoted as 103 minutes, 3 minutes longer than in Japan. This is due to much longer credits (accompanied by an additional remix of the theme song performed by the two lead child actors in the dub). The original had unusually short credits, and quite colorful ones at that--every name is accompanied by a small drawing of an animal or object. One wonders if this wasn't a nod to some of Pixar's rather creative credit crawls.
Speaking of the credits, Miyazaki is known for casting people not usually associated with anime in his productions. Ponyo takes this to the extreme, without a single voice actor in the cast; they're a mix of live-action actors, stage personalities, and singers.
Ponyo and Sousuke's voice actors, Yuria Nara and Hiroki Doi, were only slightly older than the characters at the time--both were about nine--but were both experienced child actors with a number of TV roles on their respective resumes. The closest to a voice actor in the cast is probably comedian George Tokoro (Fujimoto), who had a CGI TV series of his own, Digital Tokoro-san, as well as having dubbed a few well-known characters, most notably Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies. He also voiced the title characters in ALF and Howard the Duck.
US DVD Review
Disney's DVD is similar to their other Ghibli discs, which is to say very good; pristine video transfer, big-budget 5.1 audio in English, Japanese, and French, relatively accurate English subtitles (as well as a French and Spanish subtitle track), and the entire film with no adjustments or edits. The DVD is also available as a bonus with the Blu-ray edition.
The high-def Blu-ray version features a beautiful 1080p video transfer, although the relatively simple, flat artwork doesn't particularly show off the added resolution; see the screenshot gallery for some samples. The English audio is boosted to 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (48kHz, 24-bit, according to the box), while the Japanese and French audio tracks are "only" 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are again English, French, and Spanish. Bonus features on the BD include "The World of Ghibli" (which consists of some info about the film and documentaries about Ghibli, including interviews with Miyazaki) and an alternate video track that shows the storyboards used to produce the final shots.
Rated G in the use, I can comfortably call it an all-ages film, though there are some sequences during the storm that very small children might find frightening.
Violence: 1 - There are some relatively tense scenes during the storm, and non-specific discussion of related disaster.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - The most innocent of romance between Sousuke and Ponyo.
Language: 0 - None that I noticed in Disney's dub.