Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Movie Review: Ponyo

I know that the official name of this movie is not Ponyo. That's the bastardized American version. I'm a bastard American, so I don't care. I did not write this review; it was written by my esteemed colleague Mr. Ben Coffman. That said, we talked a lot about the film, and his opinion seems understandable. Personally, I have a sick thing for hand-drawn animation. It just touches me in all my childlike places (wait, that sounds really wrong). Point is, I just get a unique joy out of seeing something that wasn't rendered by a computer. I always have. So, on the one hand, I appreciate the shit out of Miyazaki. On the other...that stuff be straight-up WEIRD yo. Some of it looks like this pretty nonsense:

My favorite is Princess Mononoke, mostly because it has some measure of a linear storyline for me to follow. Spirited Away sure was purty, but it made so little sense that it was basically like having David Lynch try to fingerpaint my dreams. I think that there's nothing wrong with enjoying the madness and pure visual fun of Miyazaki's less-American-friendly material, but I also think there's nothing wrong with Ben's point either.

For Love of Fish
Miyazaki’s Ponyo flounders
Ben Coffman

Perhaps the reason that director Hayao Miyazaki, the godfather of hand-drawn Japanese animation, is still somewhat unknown domestically, despite being the owner of a shiny Academy Award for Spirited Away, is that something in his films is lost in translation. In Miyazaki’s latest film Ponyo (or, if you prefer, Gake no ue no Ponyo), all of his hallmarks are present, including dream logic and magical realism…but the result is something less than a magical dream.

Ponyo begins with a jailbreak, as the titular fish (voiced by Noah Lindsey Cyrus, younger sister of jailbait/pop tart Miley) wriggles free of her underwater home and escapes her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), an enigmatic, morally ambiguous wizard with Neptune-like powers. Like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Ponyo longs to visit the surface. However, unlike Ariel, Ponyo is a goldfish with a human’s face, the oceanic equivalent of bat boy. In short, she’s hideous, but no one in the film seems to notice.

After accidentally trapping herself in a glass bottle, Ponyo is rescued from the sea by 5-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger brother of teen heartthrobs The Jonas Brothers). In an attempt to sweep Ponyo back into the sea, Fujimoto send a living wave (the Ponyo equivalent of the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz) toward Sosuke. “That was weird,” says the boy, as he jumps out of the way. Yes, that was weird. But just wait.

The two children form an instant bond, and Sosuke shows off his new fish friend to his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) before eventually losing Ponyo to the sea. But don’t worry—Ponyo and Sosuke are reunited after a difficult-to-explain event “opened a hole in the fabric of reality”—a huge understatement, as the fabric of reality in this film wouldn’t make a suitable G-string. The film’s gobbledygook plotlines make further synopsis useless.

Although creating a film from hand is an admirable task, sympathy for hand-cramped illustrators and/or nostalgia for Disney’s golden age cannot carry Ponyo. Too much of the film’s charm is derived from a quaint production style and its innocent, five-year-old lead characters. Originality is sorely lacking, as plot-wise, Ponyo is basically a Japanese folklore version of The Little Mermaid or Splash, but without the catchy tunes, the beloved Tom Hanks or logic.

The current crop of American animation greats (such as Brad Bird) cite Miyazaki as their master. In light of their work, perhaps Ponyo suggests that the students have become the masters.

Grade: C

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