Monday, August 17, 2009

Love: Ponyo

When it comes to artistry in animation, Hayao Miyazaki can't really fail. The Japanese anime master can work wonders with 2D in an age where Pixar reigns supreme and Disney tends to veer further and further away from their heyday under Walt.  His latest export is Ponyo, a fish-story retelling of the Little Mermaid chock full of childlike wonder and exuberant joy. The titular Ponyo (voiced by Miley's 9-year old sister Noah Cyrus) is a sort of human-faced goldfish princess who is saved by a little boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, naturally). They form a bond in her brief time as a captured pet on land, and upon being retrieved by her magical father, Ponyo rebelliously upsets the natural order by using her own latent magical properties to  become a human girl and escape to be with her new playmate. So long as you can keep your doubting adult in check, Ponyo is a beautiful, innocent little story that manages to be relentlessly cheerful and retain its optimism even in its bleakest moments.
Of course, if you look for it, there's a lot of tragedy in the story. Reality and imagination, as with all Miyazaki's work, run parallel courses, and Ponyo's exuberant liberation is tied directly to chaos and loss. When nature is disrupted, destruction inevitably follows. A child watching the film, however, would never notice this as there are enough bright colors, adorable moments, and humorous lines to keep chaos at bay. This unflinching sense of wonder is where the film is perhaps most magical. Miyazaki's other works frequently dip into a darker terrain. In fact, they're frequently quite dark; haunted by a nightmarish unpredictability like Alice's bad trip. Even My Neighbor Totoro is plagued by the horrifying incomprehension of children grappling with a mother's illness and conjuring up giant beasts in the dark. Ponyo is, without a doubt, the brightest, most child-specific of Miyazaki's works. There are no real villains, no true threats, only the restraint of a cautious wizard father (Liam Neeson). At the core of the story is a test of love and the bright, effervescence of Sosuke's point of view. He sees things more clearly than the adults, and considers them without judgment. There is a simplicity and wisdom in the interactions between the children that makes them simultaneously remarkable and believable.
While Ponyo put a smile on my face and delivered a few lines i will be repeating in excess over the next few weeks ("HAAAAMMMMM!"), I will own up to feeling just the slightest twinge of self-serving disappointment.  This is a film best suited for small children.  Though there's something for everyone, the bright palette and cutesy high-pitched characters seem like a sort of Miyazaki primer for those not yet mature enough for the thematic depth and winding labyrinths of films like Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle. It's like watching Sesame Street after you've fully comprehended the Muppets: you'll still see the humor, but the content just isn't meant for you. I couldn't help but take note of the oddly timed laughter of the small children in the vicinity, or feel that the film didn't hold a candle to what I loved so intensely about Princess Mononoke. That's not to say you shouldn't watch it. No, no, please do. If you're already a devoted Miyazaki fan, or if you're a newcomer with a young ward, this is a must-see gem of a film with an overall positive vibe and a remarkably infectious theme song. Just, you know, don't drag your friend or relative who's stubbornly convinced cartoons are just for kids...this won't help your case.

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