Thursday, March 04, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 17 of 100

‘Ponyo’ is a deceptive film. The story – an instantly recognisable take on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ – is straightforward and unencumbered by subplots or a proliferation of supporting characters à la ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’; and yet Miyazaki communicates as much about the wide-eyed joyful innocence of childhood as he did in ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, as much about the environment and mankind’s often destructive relationship to it as he did in ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’, and as much about responsibility and the work ethnic never mind the youthfulness of the protagonist as he did in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’.

By the same token, ‘Ponyo’ seems to have the simplest visuals of any Studio Ghibli production. As Tim has pointed out in his absolutely spot-on review at Antagony & Ecstasy, “The gentle look of the film, halfway between watercolors and colored pencils, gives ‘Ponyo’ the certain air of an illustrated storybook.” Tim develops this observation to note that ‘Ponyo’ has the effect of rendering any adults in the audience – and there were a few at the mid-afternoon screening I attended – “to a more infantile state”. Again, absolutely true. Even I stopped being a grumpy old sod for an hour and three quarters (well, except when I wasn’t entertaining murderous thoughts about the little bastards in the front row who wouldn’t stop talking; not to mention the parents/guardians with them who obviously didn’t give a crap*) and simply ended up staring at the screen in bliss and gratitude.

Why bliss? Because ‘Ponyo’ is a dreamily beautiful fable, flawless in its conception, and feelgood in a way that American cinema can seldom do without tipping over into emotional manipulation. The story is simple, but arguably all the more heartfelt for being simple. The characters are immensely appealing (even though I didn’t have the option of seeing this in a subtitled cut and had to put up with Miley Cyrus’s younger sister and an equally prepubescent member of the Jonas clan squeakily providing vocals for Ponyo and Sosuke), the undersea world is riotous blaze of life and colour, and the story’s one and only turn into darker territory (matters relating to a storm which threatens to flood an entire community) is done so excitingly that I doubt even the youngest viewer would find it too scary.

Why gratitude? Because in an age where the majority of child-friendly animated films are CGI, Studio Ghibli continue to produce old school 2D animation with a zest and imagination that makes you wonder why anyone would want to boot up a computer when they could simply draw. And in ‘Ponyo’, they have taken story so sweet and unpretentious – so slight – that it could easily have been risible, and made of it instead a work of art.

*My fault for attending a matinee screening during half term week, I guess.


Bryce Wilson said...

Great write up. Ponyo's such a lovely movie, and such an easy one to underrate. The artistry is incredible (That's all hand drawn, there's not even Computer COLORING).

Still there where a few things that made me laugh, even though most are the fault of The American Dub, from Matt Damon's two second roll that really really screams, "They wanted to put my name on the poster!" to Liam Neeson's mind boggling miscasting as the least convincing Drag Queen/Willy Wonka Enthusiast in the world.

But even the ending, which I literally couldn't believe the first time I saw it, has grown on me. It's really just takes what went on with Spirited Away a step further. Miyaziki really doesn't give a fuck about the laws of narrative. He's going to tell stories his way.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I applaud Miyazaki and his crew for sticking to traditional animation as well, theres a charm to it thats missing from the cold and calculated computer images.

I cant wait to see this one, I missed it in theaters sadly.

I love these Miyazaki films because they have such a positive vibe to them, like Kiki and Totoro, the events in these movies are mostly happy, though sometimes reality and sadness do intrude.

Thanks for the review Neil!

Neil Fulwood said...

Bryce - I'm in complete agreement: Damon's contribution seems to have more to do with marketing than anything else. Liam Neeson's character should have been voiced by Johnny Depp ... or, better still, the whole thing should have been left in Japanese and subtitled.

"Miyazaki doesn't give a fuck about the laws of narrative. He's going to tell stories his way." Amen to that! And ain't that just why he's a true artist?

Francisco - 'Ponyo' definitely has a similar atmosphere to 'Kiki' and 'Totoro': it's very charming and exuberant. The darker elements aren't pronounced as in 'Nausicaa' or 'Mononoke', but Miyazaki still makes an important point about the environment and mankind's vulnerability against the sheer force of nature.

Thanks for commenting, guys.