Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ponyo - Home Video Review

Streamed using Netflix Instant Watch.

Original Release Date (US): August 14, 2009

What a magical film this is, Mr. Miyazaki can never disappoint and each time I see one of his films it just fills me with happiness. For years now I have been a vocal and loyal fan of his and for years he has never given me a reason to doubt him and that trend continues with Ponyo (or the original translated Japanese title Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea). People have compared him to the likes of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas from back when they used to make magic on the screen all the time. The one problem with that analogy is that Mr. Miyazaki has yet to make not only a bad film, but even a mediocre one. I am not sure what kind of magic that man wields but I am powerless to fight it and honestly, who would want to...?

Ok, so I failed at getting across the story to this rather simple tale on the podcast, but I hope the power of the written word can prevail where the spoken word eluded me. The creature/fish/girl known as Ponyo lives under the sea where her father takes care of her and her dozens of sisters. One day while her father (whom is the caretaker/guardian of the sea) is busy doing his magic, Ponyo escapes for reasons left unknown other than perhaps the simple curiosity that is found in children. She ends up at this fairly low key sea port town where she is immediately swept up into a net gathering trash from the ocean floor (at least that is what I think it was doing). She ends up getting stuck in a bottle and she eventually wiggles her way to shore where she finally meets Sosuke, the little boy that will end up winning her affections.

Meet Ponyo....awwwweeee, isn't she so cute!
That is all you really need to know, yes there are story elements that could be told but as much as I love this film I believe there are other things that need to be discussed instead. If you have never seen a Miyazaki film before then shame on you, but at the same time you are in store for a wonderful adventure the likes of which you have never before experienced. A Miyazaki film tends to have this sort of innocence to everything that happens in it. From the characters to the world around them, everything always just feels so pure and joyful. His films are all have that same feeling instilled into them and Ponyo fits right into that club and it is all the better for it.

The art style is simplistic yet highly detailed at the same time. Look at the character of Ponyo when she is still a fish, she has almost no real features yet as you watch her as she swims, scowls and smiles you understand every emotional beat perfectly. The moment when she gets stuck in the bottle at the beginning and is trying to swim around is so adorable to watch and that is due to the animation department at Studio Ghibli and most definitely Miyazaki's influence as well. That detail carries over to all characters, even the minor ones that get almost zero screen time.

Souske showing Ponyo around in her green bucket.
Now, there is a moment near the middle of the film that I will not spoil for you, however the screen below is a little hint, but it is one of the most jaw dropping sequences in any film that I had seen in a long time. I know that hand drawn animated films are not that popular anymore (The Lion King was a long time ago now) but I challenge anyone to not be awe struck while watching this scene. The animation and the imagination on display is truly a marvel and it is all backed up by a wonderful musical score that most live action movies are never blessed with. It is a shame that films like this are not celebrated by the masses anymore and that there are so few of them.

That's enough of that, this isn't supposed to be a requiem for a new Miyazaki film, it is supposed to be a great time and that is exactly what I had while watching it. It is difficult to put into words what exactly makes a film like Ponyo work because as you watch it you understand it. However, once it is over you know you still understand it but it is not something you can really verbalize in a traditional way. You know that you loved every inch of what you saw and that it made you feel over joyed and I guess that is kind of enough but then again, how are you supposed to convince someone into seeing something that you cannot describe...?

This scene is a true testament to the beauty of hand drawn animation.
You start by letting them know what it was you felt as you watched it. For me, I got goose bumps during the scene I mentioned earlier and I constantly found myself smiling for no reason other than that I was under its spell and I found everything about it endearing and heartwarming. This film has a narrative but it most certainly is more than that, it is an experience. It is an experience that needs to be had, and let me clarify real quick, this is not even close to my favorite Miyazaki film (that honor is being constantly battled by my love for Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away). But that shouldn't matter simply because in all honesty I hold all of his films up on a high pedestal and love them all just the same.

Ponyo only proves that the man has a limitless imagination, which ironically is what makes his films so hard to describe. The creatures (if you can even call them that) don't really make any sort of sense, heck even Ponyo herself is sort of an enigma but as I said before, you just end up falling in love with it all because of the hard work put into their physical characterizations. Souske and his mother are really not that interesting when it really comes down to it, but that is because they are portrayed in such a nonchalant way and the direct result of that is you end up identifying with them more than most characters in live action films.

Ponyo, Souske and his mom get ready to hold out during the storm.
I cannot end this without discussing one of my favorite aspects of a Miyazaki film which is that just about all his films, this one included, never have the A-typical villain that appears to stir things up. Ponder this, what was the last movie you saw that didn't have any type of antagonist? Anything that didn't have the story propelled by the malicious actions of some evil or at the very least mean character? It is a really hard thing to do and you wouldn't be alone in that either I suspect. We as a culture have been trained to not only expect there to be a villain but we almost always need one.

That is where another part of the Miyazaki magic comes into play, as you watch a film like Ponyo you will most likely never even question the fact that there is no villain, unless you expect that out of your movies. Even innocent Disney/Pixar films always have a villain and although they usually get what's coming to them they always feel like some sort of odd thing that didn't really need to be there. Imagine a movie where all the characters do what they do because it makes sense? Imagine a movie where things happen because...well they just happen? Imagine a movie where the true magic is in the way the story is told and how you end up latching on to the characters and events on display before you? Now, imagine it animated with beautiful hand drawn visuals with a lush and amazing musical score? have just imagined watching a Miyazaki film. Now stop imagining it and make it a reality you silly person.

Ponyo and Souske checking out what surprises the storm brought along with it.

There really isn't much more to say other than...



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