Starring (voice talent): Yuria Nara Hiroki Doi Tomoko Yamaguchi Kazushige Nagashima George Tokoro
Running time: 100 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
A little girl, half-human/ half-fish, is the daughter of a Lord of the Sea. One day she escapes from the palace and ventures to the surface, a place that her father has no love for. Above the waves she meets a kind-hearted boy and after a brief time spent together she professes her love for him. Sadly the two are separated and the young, half-human girl goes on a duel purpose quest - two be reunited with this boy above the waves and to become fully human. If this sounds like Walt Disney's undersea adventure "The Little Mermaid" you'd be mistaken. That 1989 animated film, like so many Disney films, took a classic fairy tale (in this case Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 story) and updated it complete with cute characters and a show tune-filled soundtrack. The little half-human/ half-fish girl I'm discussing is Ponyo, the title character of Hayao Miyazaki's latest film "Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea". Well, to say that this is Miyazaki's latest film is a bit of a misnomer. As many of you already know, "Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea" got its Japanese theatrical release back in 2008 and quickly became one of the country's biggest box office hits that year. As part of Walt Disney's deal with Studio Ghibli that was struck back in 2001 after the release of "Sprited Away" Miyazaki's variation on "The Little Mermaid" got a brief theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada last summer before being brought to Region 1 DVD this month. As with all of the Studio Ghibli films released under this agreement no cuts to the films have been made and the English translation, dubbing, and subtitling all get approved by Studio Ghibli to ensure that their integrity isn't compromised at all.; and what's great is that they haven't. Disney's releases of Hayao Miyazaki's, Isao Takahata's and Yoshifumi Kondo's films have been damn near reverent. I do believe though that this agreement between Disney and Studio Ghibli is at the root of what prevents "Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea", shortened to "Ponyo" for its North American release, from being a film on par with "My Neighbor Tototoro" or "Spirited Away".
Let's back track a bit so I can give you a better description of "Ponyo" than just "Miyazaki's variation on 'The Little Mermaid'". 5-year-old Sosuke lives with his mother Lisa in an idyllic house on a rocky outcrop by the ocean. Sosuke's father captain's a boat whose route passes right past the house, so close that at night little Sosuke can flash Morse code to his dad with a signal light. During the day Sosuke attends kindergarten, visits his mother at the nursing home she works at, and plays on the rocky beach. It's here that he one day discovers a tiny goldfish stuck head first in a mason jar. He saves it and takes it home in a plastic bucket so he can nurse it back to health, but strange things start to happen. The goldfish seems to be able to respond to his voice, and its face is almost human. After Sosuke names the fish Ponyo it actually answers back! "Ponyo loves Sosuke," it exclaims. If that wasn't strange enough a wild-looking stranger with long, unruly red hair pumping sea water through a bug sprayer holds vigil at the end of Sosuke's garden. This is Fujimoto, a Lord of the Sea, and Ponyo's father, a man who was once human but who has rejected his land-loving ancestors who (like so many Miyazaki characters) believes that humanity is destroying nature. Deep underwater he is hatching a magical plan to bring balance to the planet, and the last thing he wants is his little fish daughter to discover her human origins. Unfortunately her meeting with Sosuke has foiled Fujimoto's plan. After he uses his magic to return Ponyo to his underwater palace, she unwittingly turns the tables and uses her father's potions and elixirs to complete her human transformation and return to land to be with Sosuke.
Miyazaki said that he made "Ponyo" for children Sosuke's age and I think it would be a mistake to look at the film without keeping that in mind. The colours on screen pop, the sea creatures (and the sea itself) are all rendered a little larger than life, just large enough so that a child's eyes would go wide with wonder watching them. Well, my eyes went wide with wonder a few times during "Ponyo" especially when our little heroine literally turns nature upside down so she can be reunited with her new friend on shore. The resulting storm is like nothing I've seen on film before, be it animated or live-action. There were times when I found myself holding my breath as I watched Sosuke and Lisa trying to navigate the rain lashed roads leading to their home. Miyazaki can create that level of excitement just as expertly as he can craft quiet moments like the one where Sosuke, Lisa and the newly human Ponyo share tea and bowls of ramen in the warmth of Lisa's kitchen. This sequence stands side-by-side with the scenes in "My Neighbor Totoro" when the two sisters, Satsuki and May, scout both in and around their new country home.
I think one of the things that makes Miyazaki's films so special, and so popular with North American film fans are these kind of moments. The narratives of these films are so organic and nearly devoid of formula. Yes, they have good guys and bad guys and sometimes take the form of a quest or a journey, but the good guys aren't entirely squeaky clean and the bad guys are more misunderstood than malevolent. Even the quests (I'm think of "Princess Mononoke specifically here) end up going off on unanticipated detours and character tangents. The engine of Miyazaki's stories will often slow down to a crawl for brief periods so that quiet moments can be perfectly captured, or relationships between characters can be explored in greater detail. These narrative ebbs (some North American audiences would say narrative stalls) are a direct result of Miyazaki's working methods and particular screenwriting techniques. In a 2002 interview with Midnight Eye's Tom Mes Miyazaki admitted that his animated visions aren't entirely mapped out before production begins, "The story develops when I start drawing storyboards. The production starts very soon thereafter, while the storyboards are still developing. We never know where the story will go but we just keeping working on the film as it develops. It's a dangerous way to make an animation film and I would like it to be different, but unfortunately, that's the way I work..." Dangerous indeed, but I believe that it's this uncertainty that has given so many of Miyazaki's films like "My Neighbor Totoro", "Porco Rosso", "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away" their charm and sense of joyful discovery.
With Miyazaki's 2005 film "Howl's Moving Castle" and now "Ponyo" the maleability of the plots hardens up to quickly and too firmly by the end of the films. I don't want to give away any of the ending of "Ponyo" but suffice to say that the last 10-minutes slips a bit too far into Disney-esque happy ending formula. This is where I think Disney's deal with Ghibli has impacted Miyazaki's distinctive style, and to be fair to Disney it has nothing to do with them. I believe that through his exposure to the pat, sentimental endings of American animated films Miyazaki has learned a new way to tie up all the loose ends of his wonderfully sloppy narratives - bring everyone together, magically erase any difficulties they've endured, cue Jo Hisaishi to bring the music to a crescendo and roll the end credits. It might be a minor quibble for many readers out there who will be happy to bask in mastery of Miyazaki's imagined world, but it was the false Disney ending to "Ponyo" that really troubled me. That being said, will I add Disney's DVD of "Ponyo" to my collection, putting it on the shelf right next to "Nausicaa", "Castle in the Sky", "Totoro" and "Spirited Away"? The answer is yes. There's just too much that's right with this film. I just wish that its ending had been one of those things.