Hayao Miyazaki is a bloody wizard. A conjurer of animated dreams with line and colour as his wand and magic. A popular auteur in a form that has few. In the last decade in particular, his films – and the films of Studio Ghibli, the animation house he co-founded – have enjoyed a number of international hits (including Miyazaki’s own Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle) that have garnered acclaim and box office success the world over.
So, no wonder that the latest film from Miyazaki and Ghibli, Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo), is receiving plenty of attention. The Optimum-distributed UK release is today (a good few months after the majority of the world has already seen it), but a London audience was treated to a preview screening of the dubbed version of the film.
Ponyo is Ghibli’s resetting of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, in a similar way to how Spirited Away was their appropriation of Alice in Wonderland. Which is to say, Miyazaki takes the kernel of the story (in this case, a sea-bound creature wishing to be a human girl), and transforms it with Japanese imagery, locations and mysticism. Here, Ponyo is a magical goldfish-like creature who, after escaping the clutches of her over-zealous sorceror father, ends up on dry land, and enters the life of a lonely boy called SÅsuke.
Miyazaki’s movies often work within the triangle of humanism, nature and fantasy, with only the pitch of core audience age being the distinctly differing factor. Ponyo, in intent, is closest to My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), a children’s classic made in 1988 that still charms and dazzles to this day. That film, as with Ponyo, attempts to display human – especially child – experience through a relationship with nature and imagination. Where Totoro was about moving home and coming to terms with a mother’s illness through discovering big friendly monsters in the local forest, Ponyo is a little more oblique. Again, Miyazaki uses location well, with the seaside village (modelled on Japanese port town Tomonoura) providing a rich, picturesque setting that is rendered beautifully in hand-drawn vistas, and watercolour waves that recall the art of Hokusai. In the film, SÅsuke is a boy who is mostly abandoned by his father (a ship’s captain), and is uninterested in the other kids at school. He lives a lonely life until he finds Ponyo, the magical fish-turned-girl.
The ensuing adventure illustrates his burgeoning maturity, sense of responsibility, and the enrichment of having a pet, or best friend. That this comes from a Tsunami – depicted as being made up of the sloshing of huge water creatures – shows Miyazaki’s talent of presenting the natural world through the awestruck, hyper-imaginative eyes of a child. Such moments are the outright highlights of the film, with Ponyo’s arrival into the world of land-livers used as an excuse to portray even the most mundane aspects of life (cooking instant noodles, for instance) in the most whimsical, enchanting way.
However, while these tendencies firmly root Ponyo in the human/nature duality seen in Totoro, the fantasy element is stressed almost out of proportion, with the broadstroke storylines of his more adventure-centirc films intruding in a slightly jarring fashion. Ponyo’s transgression into the human world sets off a huge storm that threatens the lives of SÅsuke’s friends, neighbours and relatives (not least his sea-faring father). This would be a suitable rooting of the story in a natural context, but Miyazaki wastes too much time in fleshing out this tale in a self-consciously epic manner, throwing into the mix evil wizards and radiant goddesses, and having the equilibrium of the whole world hanging in the balance. It all feels very over-worked, and helps to drown out the film’s simpler pleasures.
It would be easy to blame Disney’s dub for these deficiencies – American dubs of Japanese properties are often the root of plenty of problems – but, as has been the case with their releases of Ghibli films, the voice work and localisation is above par, and perfect for a family audience. This time, the Disney touch is much more prevalent, with both Ponyo and SÅsuke being voiced by pint-sized House of Mouse contractors, namely Noah (Miley’s sister) Cyrus, and Frankie (youngest of the Brothers) Jonas. Save for a few moments of irritation (most offensive being the horrendous, autotuned-to-hell theme tune remix that plays over the closing credits), they do a pleasant enough job.
Likewise, other notables such as Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman and Betty White do little to either enrich or upset the film. Only two really stand out from the pack. Liam Neeson seems stretched as Ponyo’s father, a conflicted role which is neither simply evil or sympathetic – resulting in an awkwardly pantomimic performance. On the flip side, Tina Fey is great as SÅsuke’s mum, Lisa, a character who is simply bursting with personality and non-conventional – but highly believable – traits.
Indeed, it seems that the film’s flaws are endemic, and mostly lie at the feet of the unwise focuses of the plot. There’s a chance that the original Japanese voice work – with English subtitles – might ‘sell’ these flights of fantasy a little better, and I will make sure to report back closer to the release date, if I catch a subbed screening.Nevertheless, the wonders of the film – its visual sense, its charming outlook, the striking score from Joe Hisaishi (which blends both wistful and Wagnerian Romanticism very well) – scream through the cultural-language barrier, making the dubbed version of Ponyo, for the most part, a beautiful, heartwarming piece that should bring a smile to anyone’s face, regardless of age.