Monday, August 17, 2009

Ponyo (***)

Written and Directed by Hayao Mayazaki


I will admit that I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to Japanese Anime films. Mamoru Oshii's ultra-violent Ghost In The Shell always seemed slow and uninteresting, and even though there is a strong American following for these films, they always seemed strangely archaic to me. Of course, the Japanese take their animated works much more seriously than us Americans do, and they aren't afraid to draw something up specifically for adults. The biggest conundrum for me when it comes to Japanese Anime is the level of animation compared to the added maturity within the storylines. How can the films be more sophisticated than American animation, when the animation itself is so much more unsophisticated?

That said, Hayao Mayazaki is not just any Japanese Anime filmmaker. Many consider him to be the ultimate genius within the genre, and his film Howl's Moving Castle is considered a masterpiece, while 2001's Spirited Away won the Animated Feature Oscar, the only foreign film to ever win that young award. So it makes sense that Mayazaki's newest film, Ponyo, would get the Hollywood treatment. As the film's status grew in Japan, Disney bought the film, and dubbed it over with superstar voices including Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson. Now, it is in American theaters for many to see.

The film is about a young goldfish who travels up to the land and ends up in the hands of a small boy named Sosuke. Despite the obvious emotional limitations of being a fish, Ponyo begins to openly state her love for Sosuke, and her desire to be a human. This comes as a shock to her father, Fujimoto, who watches her from under and above the water. He hates humans, and sees them only as beings who make waste to the sea. Having tasted human blood, Ponyo's powers become stronger and she is able to grow feet and hands, and transform into a little girl.

Fujimoto's worst fear is realized when Ponyo's transformation disrupts the balance of nature, and causes a dangerous tsunami to blow through Sosuke's small town. Sosuke and his open-minded mother Risa allow Ponyo to stay in their home while the storm rages outside. Ponyo endears the two of them as she is able to use her special powers to start the generator, and turn Sosuke's toy boat into a big enough boat to get around in after the tsunami has settled. As she continues to meld with Risa and Sosuke, Fujimoto tries desperately to get Ponyo back to make the world right.

You can't state enough how impressive it is that Mayazaki continues to do hand-drawn animation. It's particularly impressive when you consider that almost all animation in America has shifted toward the computer-animations of Pixar and Dreamworks, and there hasn't really been a successful hand-drawn cartoon film since Aladdin. Not that Mayazaki is interested in what is successful in the states, his films have been enormously successful in numerous countries, but it's important not to underscore how breathtaking Mayazaki's animation is.

Mayazaki's eye for the fantastical is another thing which may stunt the attention of American audiences. I assume that walking out of this film, I shouldn't ask why Ponyo looks nothing like a goldfish, but actually like a toddler in a nightgown. I also shouldn't ask why Ponyo's sorcerer father looks absolutely nothing like a fish, but instead like a 1970's glam rocker, equipped with hair spray and sanguine suits. Perhaps Japanese audiences don't even bat an eye at this, but for many (including me), it produces a quizzical eyebrow raise.

What makes Ponyo such a wonderful experience, though, is not it's majestic characters, but it's heart. It has an unbelievable affection for its characters, and even the evil ones get their opportunities to show all of their dimensions. The characters of Fujimoto and Risa, particularly, are a perfect showcase of the varying worries and responsibilities of parenthood, and even when they aren't showing the best judgment, there is never a moment of doubt of their true feelings for their children.

The reason most people will love Ponyo, though, is because of the adorable love story between Ponyo and Sosuke. It was, in fact, adorable though the idea of a story about true love involving two toddlers is a little unnerving. Surely, Mayazaki does not take this underage affection into Todd Solondz, Welcome To The Dollhouse atmosphere, and is able to produce a constant feel of innocence underneath everything. With the addition of Joe Hisaishi's wondrous score, the film's startling beauty does overtake you, even if some of its moments involve great suspension of disbelief.

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