Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Ponyo (2008)
Animation, Adventure, Family, 101 minutes
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin and Betty White (US dub)

I am overwhelmed with emotion as I sit here contemplating what to write about Ponyo. That might sound silly, but it's true. Here is an animated film which focuses on two children who are about 5-years-old, but the story works for any adult who is open to being moved by its charming characters. To be precise, one of the children begins life as a fish, before undergoing a transformation.

Director Hayao Miyazaki is some kind of magician. If you have ever seen My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, or Princess Mononoke, you'll know what to expect from Ponyo. It's closest in feel to Totoro because of the ages of the main characters. Miyazaki's animations look like watercolor paintings rather than the 3D worlds found in Pixar's releases, but although they are less real, they have more warmth and heart than the world's second-best animation studio. I don't say that lightly.

If you're put off by the title, or the fact that the film was made in Japan, set aside those fears immediately. The Blu-ray comes with the original Japanese dub (although only in 5.1 Dolby Digital), and an HD dub from Disney for the US market featuring actors you mostly already know.

Ponyo has a special place in my heart because it is the first Studio Ghibli title that I ever bought. I had borrowed one or two before from my local library, but this first glimpse of Miyazaki's work in HD is something I will never forget. The experience begins with five minutes of action without any dialog, and the colors, imagination, movement, and sheer beauty of the animation will take your breath away. If Kubrick had made an animated film, the first five minutes might look similar.

After the initial sequence, we meet Sosuke (Jonas). He's a small boy who discovers something while he's playing by the beach; it turns out to be Ponyo (Cyrus), who he mistakes for a goldfish. She's trapped in a discarded bottle, so he helps her break free. When he cuts his finger in the process, she licks the wound and heals him. Yes, Ponyo is a magical creature. The taste of human blood changes her nature. Sosuke takes care of her and keeps her in a bucket, but she is later returned to the ocean.

Ponyo's undersea world is just as fascinating as the one above. Her father, Fujimoto (Neeson), is some kind of wizard who makes elixirs and helps keep nature in balance. He doesn't trust humans and fears for Ponyo's safety, so he's reluctant to allow her to leave her home. What he doesn't know is that Ponyo has come to love Sosuke, and wants to transform herself into a human girl so that she can be with him.

The two most common complaints I have heard about the film are that it is intended for small children and the story is hard to follow. I have never had trouble following the plot, and I think it will work for anyone who doesn't dismiss it as being too childish without even seeing it. This is a film for parents as well as children.

Miyazaki is an incredible study of human nature and knows exactly how to depict emotion in his drawings. I would say that it's almost impossible to watch without being moved in a positive way. Like Totoro, the story takes place in a world in which people care about each other. There are no villains of any kind. The story relies on events to drive it, and it's never boring. Notice how supportive Sosuke's mother (Fey) is when he tells her that he's rescued a fish and that she has turned into a girl, or the respect that Sosuke has for his elders. There are a lot of good messages here for children (and adults).

I want to mention two more scenes before I stop talking about the plot. The first is one of the purest expressions of joy I have ever witnessed in a film, and shows Ponyo running along on top of the waves as she tries to reach Sosuke. Look at the expression on her face. She only has one thought, and it's driven by love. The other scene shows Ponyo and Sosuke recovering indoors after being soaked in a storm. It's meaning might not be immediately apparent, but if you have ever been cold or wet, remember how good it felt to be warmed by a meal and a hot drink. Miyazaki includes these scenes because every human being can identify with such feelings. Instead of being bombarded by action and conflict, we are shown a world in which real things happen, and the scenes are stronger because of it.

Ponyo is a magical story. It's hard to watch without breaking into a grin, and that feeling lasts for the duration of the film. If you decide to watch it and find that it touches you in the same way, I urge you to check out Miyazaki's entire catalog if you haven't already done so.

The Blu-ray presentation is excellent. The image can't be faulted and the US dub sounds great. The only tiny criticism is that the Japanese dub is not lossless, but at least it is present for those who insist on seeing films in their original language.

Overall score 5/5

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