Unlike most of the rest of the country, rather than Inglourious Basterds I opted to see Ponyo this past weekend. That’s not to say I have no intention of seeing Inglourious Basterds, quite the contrary I’ve been looking forward to it for months now and will see it on Wednesday, which is great because it means I can be lazy and pass off a movie review as a post here twice in one week. Score! Nevertheless, I’ve heard good things about Ponyo, not to mention the fact that I have a child who is in that stage where she thinks everything that comes out of Japan is pure gold (I fear I may have a future weeaboo on my hands), so I figured we ought to catch it during its brief run in the theater, if for nothing else than to take away a few bucks from G.I. Joe and G-Force.
Ponyo is the latest from Hayao Miyazaki, best known in the US for Princess Mononoke and the Academy Award winning Spirited Away. Written for an audience somewhat younger than Miyazaki’s other films, it’s a take on The Little Mermaid (the original fairy tale, as opposed to the Disney version), about a tiny goldfish who yearns to live on land as a human. It opens with Sosuke (dubbed into English by Frankie Jonas, a younger, non-musical Jonas Brother), a five year-old boy who discovers a goldfish stuck in a jar and seemingly close to death. He names the goldfish Ponyo, and once she recovers they become fast friends. Ponyo, as is usually the case in movies like this, is no ordinary fish, however, as she soon develops the ability to speak, in the voice of Noah Cyrus, younger sister of the ubiquitous Miley (thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, despite it being a Disney release, they wisely chose to not include their favorite money machine on the soundtrack). After getting a taste of Sosuke’s blood (it’s much less gruesome than it sounds), Ponyo starts resembling humans in other ways as well, including cultivating a great love for ham and a desire to live life on two legs, preferably with Sosuke in his cliffside home, where he lives with his hardworking mother Lisa (Tina Fey).
Ponyo is quickly brought back to her undersea home, where she lives with her siblings, all miniature versions of her, and her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), a “nautical wizard” who is deeply concerned that Ponyo’s desire to live as a human will upset the balance of nature. He’s right to be concerned: Sosuke’s town is threatened with a typhoon that may cover the entire area in water. Ponyo is determined to return to Sosuke, though, and when she does she is fully human, a sweet little girl completely entranced with the world around her, finding joy and wonder in even the smallest things, such as a hot bowl of soup or a cup of tea with honey in it. Lisa, both mystified and amused by the strange child who seemed to come from nowhere, takes her in, but soon must leave the two children alone when she goes to assist a local nursing home during a huge storm. When Lisa doesn’t return the next morning, a worried Sosuke and Ponyo take off on a journey by boat to find her. Meanwhile, Fujimoto is on a frantic search for Ponyo, determined to bring her back and restore things to normal, until he is convinced by Ponyo’s mother (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of the sea, that as long as Sosuke and Ponyo’s love for each other is proven to be strong and true, her decision to remain human won’t affect the natural order. I could tell you how it ends, but if you’ve ever read a fairy tale or watched a movie in which a character must prove their bravery or love for somone, you can probably guess for yourself.
Describing something as “cute” is relative. It’s not always a compliment: sometimes when someone shows us a photograph of their unfortunate looking infant, “cute” is the best word we can come up with. Many people dislike being described as “cute,” because it means they’re not handsome or beautiful. “Cute” is often applied to things that are fun or nice to look at, but sort of meaningless and without much purpose, like Hello Kitty stationery or a throw pillow shaped like a cupcake. Not that these things are bad (I for one would love a throw pillow shaped like a cupcake), but they just don’t have much substance. So I hesitate to describe Ponyo as “cute,” but it really, really is, in the best sense of the word. I spent most of the movie smiling at its innate sweetness and gentleness, even “awwing” out loud at certain scenes, such as when Ponyo greets everything and everyone she sees with sheer delight. Despite her own magical powers, the real “magic” for Ponyo seems to come from the affection she feels for Sosuke, as well as the maternal tenderness Lisa shows her, including having her close her eyes for the “surprise” of ham mixed into her soup, at which Ponyo all but gasps in joy. It’s a film that beautifully captures the wonderment in the seemingly banal things of childhood.
It’s interesting that Ponyo would open nationwide in theaters the same weekend as Shorts, Robert Rodriguez’s latest children’s movie, in the same vein as Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, where so much CGI is employed I’m not sure even the actors are real. If Shorts and the highly anticipated Avatar are any indicator, CGI is pretty much the future of animation, and yet it becomes ever more apparent that even too much CGI, like candy and booze, can be a bad thing. For one thing, though it’s neat looking, it also tends to be kind of ugly and garish. For another, far too often, as the previously reviewed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Speed Racer have shown, often so much focus and attention is expended on the special effects that other important aspects of the film, such as, say, a completed, comprehensible script, are ignored. It seems obvious that filmmakers who are content to rely on special effects in place of a compelling plot are convinced that their audience will be too dazzled to care, their apres-film conversations going as such: “What was that about again?” “I don’t know, but did you see when the Golden Gate Bridge melted? That was awesome!” Ponyo was animated in a style that was meant to resemble watercolor and pastels, and while I can’t say for certain that computer effects weren’t used, they sure made an effort to look like they weren’t. This may be considered a step back in animation for some, but it also gives the film a nice “pages straight from a storybook” look, not to mention it goes with the generally calm, no explosions necessary plot. It’s nice to see that Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t seem interested in participating in the Hollywood dick waving fight over whose movies are the noisiest and shiniest.
Complaints are minor: the film really is appropriate for a younger audience than the marketing wizards at Disney made it seem; this is likely because Disney really had no idea how to market a movie for young viewers that didn’t have any immediately recognizable, established characters in it. However, only the most sour old assholes won’t find at least a little something to smile at, even if it’s just the soothing scenes of Ponyo floating around on a jellyfish. The storyline manages to be both simple and a bit incomprehensible, particularly the scenes involving Ponyo’s father Fujimoto, a character in which the film can’t seem to decide is supposed to be a villain or just a harried, concerned parent. Then again, find me anime, any anime, that isn’t pretty much incomprehensible. I’ve seen Akira probably a half-dozen times, and I still couldn’t tell you what the fuck it’s about. That’s small nitpicking, really, mostly I’m just happy to have seen a children’s movie where the laughs don’t come from kids acting like snotty, know-it-all little shits towards incompetent adults, talking animals dropping pop culture references, fart jokes and slapstick humor. There’s not a single testicular injury to be found in Ponyo; the closest we get to slapstick is Ponyo occasionally spitting water in people’s faces. It’s not the most exciting film in the world, but it’s pretty lovable, and lovable kids’ movies, when mostly they’re just tolerable at best, are getting fewer and further between.