Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Ponyo" Review

For a select few, the arrival of a new Hayao Miyazaki film is more celebrated than any of Pixar's blockbusters, and with good reason, as each of the renowned Japanese director's traditionally animated features takes upwards of three years to produce. The worlds he depicts are beautiful, teeming with life, color, and spirit, and "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," his latest, is no exception.

Allegedly Miyazaki's final film, he abandoned even the aid of computers in crafting "Ponyo," each frame being hand drawn and colored by his Studio Ghibli artists, and with stunning results. From its lush island vistas to busy underwater seascapes, the film offers definitive proof to the superiority (or if nothing else, credence for the continuation) of traditional animation.

The sweeping elegance of the art renders Miyazaki's films generally unhatable, but the emotional honesty of his characters is what makes them timeless. As a father of two, his knack for exploring the family dynamic from a child's perspective is revelatory. The children lucky enough to live in Miyazaki's imagination exemplify not only what makes real children cute or endearing, but also what makes them stubborn and vulnerable.

Enter Sosuke, voiced in the English dub by baby Jonas brother, Frankie, who transcends his gimmicky casting and delivers a warm and compelling performance as "Ponyo's" protagonist. Opposite him (fittingly enough) is teenybopper Miley Cyrus' little sister Noah, who does a fine job as well, though is limited mostly to high-pitched sentence fragments like "Ponyo loves Sosuke!"

The two meet on the shore below Sosuke's cliffside home after Ponyo, a princess of the sea, has eluded her father and unwittingly caught herself in a tiny glass jar, from which Sosuke frees her. The plot is more freeform than some of Miyazaki's previous works, but perhaps all the more magic for it. The universe of "Ponyo" isn't painstakingly established, and the supernatural and the incredible routinely go unquestioned, existing in an alternate plane of reality which keeps the film feeling spontaneous and often wonderful.

If "Ponyo" does prove to be Miyazaki's last film, it could potentially suffer from "Eyes Wide Shut" syndrome, symptoms of which include unfair comparisons to its director's previous work and microscope-level nitpicking, which is entirely undeserved. The film is not his career-redefining masterwork, nor is it in any way unworthy of the legacy that preceded it. It's objectively, independently great. "Ponyo" has a simple beauty to it that rivals that of "My Neighbor Totoro," and fantasy sequences that recall the best of "Spirited Away."

For its great cast (Tina Fey, Matt Damon Cate Blanchett, and Liam Neeson comprise a great dub, however blasphemous that may sound to Miyazaki purists), easy-going earnestness, and beautifully inventive visuals, "Ponyo" is my pick for animated film of the year, 'up-setting' Pixar's 2009 heavyweight, which had emotion to spare but came up short in adventure.

But those select few will share my disappointment when the envelope is opened and the monosyllabic winner is read on Oscar night. Miyazaki's latest is worthwhile even for those who associate Japanese animated films with stuffy conventions and overweight teens in costumes. "Ponyo" is a modern family classic on par with "The Little Mermaid" and the rest of the Disney golden-era library.

Miyazaki is a magician, and like a magician, everything he shows you isn't essential to your comprehension of the trick, but the end result is so beautiful that there's no sense in questioning it.


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