Ponyo (Walt Disney Studios, G)

film_ponyo_sm.jpgPonyo is far better than any other animated movie to have come out in recent years, barring Pixar’s output.







As a long-time Hayao Miyazaki fan, I was at least a little concerned going into his newest effort, Ponyo, which seems to describe the feeling among most Miyazaki fans. Although his last film, 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, was great, it wasn’t quite as good as the two that came before it, 1997’s Princess Mononoke and 2001’s Spirited Away, and it seemed to suggest that his best work was behind him (which is at least kind of an unfair criticism of someone who has made films that could be sensibly argued are the greatest animated feature films of all time). And while all three of his films prior to Ponyo dealt with adult-ish themes and had ratings to match, word from Japan is that Ponyo is geared much more toward children, and this sentiment is reflected by its G rating here in America. Worse is that siblings of grating teen stars, Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, were cast as the voices of the two lead roles. They really seem to be trying to alienate Miyazaki’s adult audience with this one.

I am quite happy to report after having seen it that all of this worrying is for naught. Is Ponyo as good as Miyazaki’s best work? No, but it is still far better than any other animated movie to have come out in recent years, barring Pixar’s output, with which it is roughly on par. While watching Ponyo and of course being swept into its magic, as I invariably am when watching a Miyazaki film, it occurred to me that my second favorite of his films, 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro, is also G-rated and seemingly geared toward a younger audience (as is 1989’s also-great Kiki’s Delivery Service, come to think of it). And as I have to begrudgingly admit, both Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas do perfectly fine work with their voice acting, as does the rest of the cast, which is largely made up of people I adore, including Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey and Matt Damon.

Ponyo tells the story of a fish-girl, Ponyo (Cyrus), who is imbued with magic. She makes herself somewhat human in an effort to be friends with Sasuke (Jonas), who saved her when her head was stuck in a jar and then took her to show-and-tell at his school. (I’m realizing now how weird that synopsis sounds; it’s much easier to go with in the context of the film.) Ponyo’s return to land in human form triggers a tsunami, which floods Sasuke’s town, endangers and sequesters his mother (Fey) and father (Damon) at an old-folk’s home and on a ship, respectively; Ponyo and Sasuke then spend much of the movie running the household and then searching for Sasuke’s mother on a small boat. Meanwhile, Ponyo is obsessed with ham and Sasuke’s mother drives like a maniac.

The character Ponyo is drawn simply; in her fish form, she looks something like a human baby in red footie jammies, and in her human form she looks like that same baby maybe four years later. That is to say, she’s an endearing little critter. A lot of Miyazaki’s trademarks are present: loving but absent parents, strong young female characters, environmental concerns. About two-thirds into the movie it starts to get a little uneven, but not so much that it loses you. And, sadly, the two voice actor leads come back and bite you in the butt with an obnoxious "Ponyo" song that plays over the closing credits, which is much like the "Totoro" theme song had it been reimagined by Disney executives trying to sell the soundtrack to stupid little kids (which is probably actually the case here). But despite these (minor) flaws, Ponyo is a film that can and should be seen by everyone, especially those who think that the magic in movies has been lost, or those who lament the death of hand-drawn animated films. | Pete Timmermann

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