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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

August 28, 2009
RATING: 8.4/10
Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has made ten films since 1979, and three since 1997, when his Princess Mononoke ousted Titanic as the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. Mononoke was released in America by Disney, in a dubbed version slicker and more painstaking (and more full of brand-name actors) than the average anime-into-English rush job; all of Miyazaki's subsequent films have received the same treatment, and so has Ponyo, in which Matt Damon and Lily Tomlin pop up in small roles, doing yeoman's work. A new Miyazaki movie, by now, is an event to those of us who think animated movies are real movies, their legacy almost as long and rich as the other kind. We like to remind people about that time Sergei Eisenstein said Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the best film ever made.

Mononoke was in part an environmental fable, albeit one unusually reluctant to judge; 2001's Spirited Away hinged on the cleansing of a river spirit; and Ponyo worries about the natural world too, though Miyazaki's worrying doesn't usually extend past a cocked eyebrow and a sigh. He approaches plotting leisurely, without the vigorous beat-hitting of the American kid's movie. Ponyo's titular jellyfish-thing (dubbed by Noah Cyrus, Miley's little sister) washes ashore in a bottle, meets a boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, the Jonas Brothers' little brother), and decides she wants to be a human, a life plan that doesn't impress her pinstripe-suit-wearing father (Liam Neeson), who patrols the bay in a submarine and mutters to himself about keeping nature in balance. This is apparently his job, though we never find out where he got it, and it's not very glamorous; the submarine is falling apart, and Ponyo's father wrestles with an uncooperative hatch, telling himself he'll "fix this next."



Behind the hatch is a vat of magic stuff that eventually escapes, unbalancing both nature and Liam Neeson, who needs Ponyo back to fix things. But Ponyo's now living with Sosuke and his mother (Tina Fey, of all people), who take the little blob in stride. Thus, Ponyo's father pursues Ponyo; Sosuke wants her to stay. This is all pretty standard, though it's tempered by Miyazaki's usual disinterest in cleanly delineated villainy: of course Ponyo's dad wants her back, he's her dad, plus he has to reset nature. It's Sosuke who's being selfish--a forgivable sin in a little kid who wants to hang out with his new friend.

The first part of Ponyo contains a lot of enveloping underwater environments, but it's in Sosuke's little town that the movie really accumulates beauty. Miyazaki has an artist's affection for the quotidian: the rusted bicycle at the bottom of a river in My Neighbor Totoro or the repetitive details of janitorial work in Spirited Away's enchanted bathhouse are disarming to an eye trained on the undistracted fake worlds of conventional children's animation. (Miyazaki movies like to pay attention to when people take off their shoes.) Ponyo has a lovely eye for its seaside town; the movie lingers on the slightly tacky drapes at the old folks' home where Sosuke's mother works, on the stacks of disorganized books around the radio she uses to call her husband aboard ship, on the half-buried bottles in the shallows of a neglected beach. Halfway through, the town floods, and the boats moored next to the houses float upwards as far as their tethers allow, hovering over the rooftops like tiny zeppelins. (Sosuke and Ponyo putter along the surface in a toy boat.) The changed landscape is exciting and frightening--one's home, made unfamiliar--and the children's journey to reach Sosuke's mother (she left during the storm to take care of her charges at the seniors' home) is a perfect odyssey in miniature.

All of this is so good that the supernatural elements, which at first seem embedded in the movie, end up superfluous. For all the magical bubbles bouncing around the screen, for all of the watery creatures Ponyo's father dispatches from his submarine to retrieve his daughter, the film's eeriest, wildest images are firmly of our world: the tops of telephone poles poking from the floodwaters; the close canopy that darkens everything when Sosuke and Ponyo pilot their boat through a forest. Ponyo herself, meanwhile, comes to grate. Miyazaki likes children, and his films have always had a welcome streak of cuteness, but he's never turned the dial quite as far as he does here; Ponyo really likes ham, see, and keeps yelling "HAM!," and she's a giggler. Alone in Miyazaki's oeuvre she seems to have one eye on the audience, eager to please; there's a whiff of convention in her.

Convention is, of course, a relative term. It's probably churlish to call a giddy little girl with chicken feet who used to be a jellyfish a cliché. And though there is cliché in Ponyo, much more of it than in Miyazaki's twin masterpieces Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, there's also a scene early on when we find Sosuke's mother, infuriated by her husband's unexpected absence, flopped on her back on the floor, with her legs sticking in the air and braced against the bed, bored and frustrated. Her son is playing nearby; this, eventually, makes her happy. The shot's a short story, quiet, funny, alive and nourishing. As I was leaving the theater a kid who couldn't have been more than ten announced to the crowd, "Miyazaki never disappoints!" I was a little disappointed, but I didn't leave hungry.

TRAILER: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALsYgbxOZuI

SEE ALSO: disney.go.com/Ponyo/

--
Theon Weber


See other articles by Theon Weber.

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