Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ponyo: Style over substance

Ponyo (2008) • View trailer for Ponyo
Three stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.20.09
Buy DVD: Ponyo• Buy Blu-Ray: Ponyo (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Japanese animation impresario Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo is gorgeous, lyrical, poetic and deeply moving at unexpected moments.

It's also slow and very, very strange.
Despite the magical Fujimoto's desperate efforts to "calm" his unusual daughter
back to her normal state, Ponyo -- originally a goldfish -- has tasted the
delights to be experienced as a human being. Then, too, she has made a
land-based friend in the world above: a little boy who already wonders what
has become of his new companion.

To a degree, the latter can be excused by the stylistic disconnect between Western and Japanese fairy tales. Miyazaki, who both wrote and directed this film, relies far more heavily on visual storytelling than narrative exposition; while U.S. directors John Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Peter Sohn clearly tried to clarify details for this English-language version, much remains oblique and only minimally explained ... if, indeed, explained at all.

The broad strokes are easy to discern, though, and other issues can be excused if "magic" is accepted as the reason for various events. Even so, adults likely will emerge with dozens of questions that simply don't have answers.

Children, on the other hand, may be completely satisfied with the core relationship between a 5-year-old boy and the rather unusual goldfish he rescues one day.

The would be Ponyo, introduced as a mute, reddish goldfish: a bit larger than her hundreds of sisters, and all of them carefully sheltered by Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), a wild-haired, undersea mad-scientist type who mutters dire imprecations while carefully pouring various colored potions into the oceans, in an effort to maintain a harmony constantly under attack by pollution from the lands above.

Ponyo, having grown old enough to be curious, hitches a ride to the surface on an obliging jellyfish: an act that very nearly ends her life, when she is scooped up by a massive dredger and gets stuck in a discarded jam jar.

Fortunately, she's spotted by young Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, yes, of that Jonas family), who quickly rescues the little fish and makes her a pet. He does this by filling a bucket with tap water, which might raise eyebrows among viewers savvy enough to understand the distinction between fresh water and sea water ... but this is the first of many, many details we simply must roll with. As far as this story is concerned, water is water; it's magic, remember?

Sosuke and his new companion are regarded with tolerant amusement by the boy's mother, Lisa (Tina Fey), who works at a senior center adjacent to the child-care facility where her son spends each day. Sosuke's father, Koichi (Matt Damon), captains one of the many huge ships that frequently head through the harbor, and the boy enjoys exchanging flashed messages late at night, when he spots his father's ship moving past.

Lisa, in frustrated contrast, is irritated by her husband's repeated preference for ocean duty over time spent with his own family. Her anger results in a tantrum that is real-world enough to lift us out of this film's predominantly fantasy elements: one of the early indications, along with the wholly believable 5-year-old behavior displayed by Sosuke, that these characters are to be regarded as folks-next-door people, and definitely not one-dimensional 'cartoons.'

But back to our story...

Ponyo responds to Sosuke's kindness with obvious delight; she likes and trusts the boy. She's therefore quite angered when her father figures out a way to return her to their underwater home: angry enough to do something really drastic.

And when a small child has actual magic powers, not even a powerful parent can hope to control that "something really drastic."

This is, perhaps, the moment to observe that Ponyo is Miyazaki's re-working of The Little Mermaid, by way of (I'd guess) some parts of Mickey Mouse's role in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," from the original Fantasia.

This cues Ponyo's subsequent transformation, and I mention it  at the risk of being branded a spoiler  only because it speaks to this film's most amazing elements, and Miyazaki's sharply observed understanding of a child's behavior.

I love the little moments here  the throwaway details, the insignificant character interplay  far more than the core plotline (such as it even can be understood).

Watch the way Sosuke wades into the water, as he first spots and then tries to rescue Ponyo.

Or consider the carefully rendered expression on the face of a little child-care classmate who wants to know what the boy has in his green bucket, and then pays for her pushy curiosity after being humorously dissed by Ponyo.

Best of all: a simple dinner of warmed, honeyed milk and noodles, as experienced for the first time by 5-year-old sensibilities. Heart-tugging beyond words.

These could be actual child performers, rather than animated creations; all these movements  and the kid-oriented logic that governs them  are flawlessly authentic.

Joe Hisaishi's richly orchestral score gives a strong dramatic boost to on-screen action and character moods; the densely symphonic music is just as lush as the artwork.

The settings are equally amazing, from the island's verdant greenery to the unusual denizens commonplace to Fujimoto's underwater realm. Miyazaki's imagination is unrestrained and often worthy of applause; consider, for example, how the rising swells of a tsunami are depicted as giant blue fish that roil about in an increasingly hostile storm: a weather anomaly unintentionally caused by Ponyo, because  even when on land  the ocean's waters always are drawn to her.

But this climactic second-act storm prompts another intriguing disconnect. Having come to regard Lisa (for example) as a credibly harried and overworked young woman  not quite a single parent, but effectively so  we can't help but blink at the way this devoted mother drives so dangerously, clearly imperiling herself and her son ... or the way she quite calmly responds to this story's rapidly increasing display of magic and miracles. Truly, the Japanese must be an imperturbable race!

Much as we might like to, as well, it's impossible to take Ponyo as a simple children's fairy tale. Miyazaki is well known for the environmental elements he adds to his films, and this one is no different; the sea surrounding Lisa and Sosuke's home is awash with sludge and garbage, and Fujimoto frequently rails against the thoughtless, brutish humans who have taken such terrible care of their world's oceans.

At one point, Fujimoto even grumbles about wanting to rid Earth of humanity once and for all, and return the oceans to their former glory, when the wonderfully strange creatures temporarily given renewed life here were plentiful.

This is a strong message, but one with no follow-through. For all their powers, Fujimoto and his even more powerful wife, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), never directly influence human behavior, nor do they leave a caution beyond insisting that Sosuke must respect and love Ponyo "as she really is."

Having been given the equivalent of a stern lecture, in the guise of this luxuriously opulent animated film, we  as viewers  can't help expecting a few suggestions on how to become better stewards of our oceans. It's equally surprising that Koichi and the many captains of all the other huge ships don't at least acknowledge past bad behavior and determine to mend their ways in the future.

Spirited Away, the 2001 classic that introduced many American viewers to Miyazaki's work, eschewed overt preaching for its core story of a frightened little girl learning courage and self-worth; it was, as a result, a much more satisfying story that had an easily grasped set-up, logical conflicts to be overcome, and a solid resolution. Granted, the setting and its inhabitants were just as wonderfully bizarre, but their behavior followed a consistent logic that could be understood and anticipated.

In great contrast, viewers watching Ponyo are likely to throw up their hands in utter bewilderment when the Earth's moon rather unexpectedly drops out of its orbit and closes in on our planet ... assuming they've made it past the rather carefree transformation undergone by the senior center residents. 'Ponyo' is a kitchen-sink fantasy: a story that tosses all sorts of extraneous elements into the mix, perhaps hoping that viewers will be awe-struck by the package, and not bothered by its erratic contents.

That certainly was the case in Japan, where Gake no ue no Ponyo  roughly, Ponyo on the Cliff, the film's actual title  was the top-grossing film in 2008, and the eighth-highest-grossing film in Japanese history. Clearly, the citizens of this island nation are content with Miyazaki's environmental message, no matter how vaguely stated, and regard the film's freeze-frame final scene as proof that individuals from wholly different realms can reach an accord, become devoted to each other and model such behavior for the rest of the world.

It's certainly a reasonable message, if indeed that is Miyazaki's fundamental moral, and undeniably a visually breathtaking experience along the way.

I just wish I understood it better.

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