Angelina Jolie is marvelously wicked in Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action MALEFICENT, but is the film’s attempt to de-villain-ize its villainess a success or a failure? Check out this (belated) installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast to find out. Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski debate the wisdom or retro-fitting classic tales with updated elements that may not fit.
The goofiest filmed version of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1995 attempts to gene-splice a new WICKED-esque back story with the familiar elements of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, resulting in a cluttered feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.
Since she is not malefic, why is she named Maleficent?
The question may seem pedantic, but truly it is symptomatic of everything wrong with MALEFICENT, the live-action prequel-remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ classic animated film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). While trying to contort the narrative into a WICKED-esque apologia for its not so villainous villainess, the new film shoe-horns in elements from its source (itself based on tales by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) with the enthusiasm of a reluctant young host inviting unwanted older relatives simply because they’re expected, regardless of whether or not they fit in. Meanwhile, the new story line stumbles along, occasionally colliding with the older bits, feigning familiarity but really rushing to get away as soon as possible. Thus, we get not only the eponymous character’s inappropriate name, but also a useless trio of fairy godmothers, an ineffectual fire-breathing dragon, and a pathetic prince, who rides in just long enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Add it all up and you have the goofiest adaptation of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by Demi Moore and company.
In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not so much a malefactor as a victim, beginning life as an innocent fairy living peacefully in her fairy wonderland. She has the ill luck to become enamored of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human with royal ambitions. Years later, Stefan ascends to the throne by pretending to complete a task assigned by the former king: killing Maleficent. (Actually, he drugs her and clips her wings, which he brings back as “proof” of her death.) Betrayed and outraged, Maleficent turns to the dark side, dragging her kingdom with her, whether they like it or not (a story element glossed over completely). She shows up uninvited at the party celebrating the birth of Stefan’s child Aurora, bestowing the expected curse that will send the young princess into a death-like sleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel sometime before her sixteenth birthday.
However, instead of fast-forwarding to the fateful day, MALEFICENT treads water for what seems like sixteen years, with the title character keeping an eye on Princess Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) for no particular reason other than idle interest. The film makes it immediately clear that the three fairy godmothers charged with protecting Aurora are incompetent nitwits, and the princess would have died many times over if not for Maleficent surreptitious intervention. In other words, as we move into the second act of the story, Maleficent has gone from Good to Evil back to Good again, though she retains the trappings of “Evil” in a belabored attempt to pretend that there is some kind of third-act redemption she needs to achieve.
With the character arc obviously completed (at least to anyone still awake after the terrifically boring back story that has been unnecessarily inflated to fill the first act), there is nothing left to do but go through the motions, which become increasingly arbitrary and eventually nonsensical. To sight the obvious: King Stefan has all the spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but he leaves the remnants in a room in his castle, ignoring the obvious fact that his daughter is fated to prick her hand on a needle – which is made of mettle and therefore not flammable. You almost wonder whether he is unconsciously colluding with his nemesis; instead, it’s just bad screenwriting.
Even more awkward: Maleficent is unstoppably all powerful, but the film pretends she is not, just long enough to stretch the story to feature length, then admits the obvious during the climax, when she easily defeats Stefan (with an assist from her pet raven-turned-human-turned-dragon, who shows up just because this is after all a remake of SLEEPING BEAUTY so we have to get the dragon in there somehow). Which leaves us wondering: Why didn’t she simply get even with Stefan immediately after he clipped her wings? Why make her own kingdom suffer? Why curse Aurora – an innocent victim – instead of gong after the true culprit? With its (allegedly anti-) heroine being drugged and violated, MALEFICENT might be read as a metaphor for date rape, with everything that follows a cathartic revenge fantasy, but that reading hardly works if Malifcent’s focus shifts from Stefan to Aurora – another example of the “Sleeping Beauty” story elements awkwardly interfering with the attempt to re-imagine the famous villainess as a Wronged Woman rather than Evil Incarnate.
The Really Big Question, however, is why we are supposed to overlook her misdirected anger when the film comes to its inevitable happy ending. Presumably this is the Darth Vader Syndrome: no matter how much suffering you have caused, you get Total Absolution for one good turn. At least this time, it’s a woman who is being absolved, which is progress of a kind, I suppose. But truly, what good is a level playing field for the sexes, when the even ground is achieved by lowering standards rather than raising them?
At least Darth had the good grace to die after saving Luke. We’re supposed to accept Maleficent living happily ever after with Aurora, which raises even more unanswered questions, such as: Doesn’t Aurora resent having never met her own mother, for which Maleficent is ultimately to blame, since Aurora’s mother died during the long years when Aurora was in hiding from the woman who cursed her? Is Maleficent comfortable with Aurora possessing the trappings of royalty and wealth inherited from Stefan, who “earned” them by violating Maleficent? Or have Maleficent and Aurora come to an understanding, choosing to overlook these messy details.
For a film that pretends to offer a more sophisticated take on a simple tale, MALEFICENT is strangely uninterested in these complexities, offering instead a bland feel-good conclusion that ignores these lingering questions.
Wrapped up in an off-the-rack computer-generated fantasy land, filled with visual noise but no real music, MALEFICENT looks less like a Grimm fairy tale for children of all ages than a carbon copy of EPIC (2103), with live actors pasted into animated landscapes. The disconnect is exacerbated by the post-production 3D conversion, which leaves the live-action characters looking flat but separates them from the artificial backgrounds in a manner that recalls old-fashioned blue-screen special effects, which often made it painfully obvious the actors were not really part of the environments seen behind them.
At least Angelina Jolie brings some zest to her role; aided by Rick Baker’s makeup, she alone among the cast almost seems to fit into this fantasy world. The same cannot be said for the three fairy godmothers, who in their smaller form are ghastly simulacrums of humanity, their computer animated faces acting as classic examples of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. (They look quite fine when the grow to full size and are played by actual actresses, but their personalities remain equally annoying.)
The rest of the cast is bland, barely more animated than their phony surroundings. Copley strives hard to appear a genuine threat, but he’s too obviously a fall guy (literally, as it turns out) to really register.
Special effects are technically impressive but lack originality (we get yet another version of the giant tree warrior special effects seen in LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention NOAH). The CGI dragon is nicely rendered, but since it no longer is a manifestation of Maleficent (rather, it is her servant, who usually appears as a raven), there is no emotional resonance, nor is its appearance truly decisive in the climactic battle; it’s just more stuff thrown into the frame. Like almost everything else in MALEFICENT, it’s a great image for the trailer but just another jumbled fragment of a feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together. SPOILERS The most troubling unanswered question lingering over the movie is ignored with blithe indifference by the script: Is Aurora cool with Maleficent having killed her father?
Sure, Stefan turned out to be a bad guy, but when you think of it, he did not behave as badly as he could have; as terrible as his crime against Maleficent was, he showed some restraint, only pretending to kill her. In a film that strives to find a spark of goodness hidden inside a heart of darkness, it seems odd that the screenplay can find no hint of sympathy for Stefan, who instead turns into a standard issue Disney villain, dying a standard issue villain’s death. You know how it goes: hero has the villain at the brink of death, relents; villain responds by trying to stab hero in back, forcing hero to kill villain in self-defense. Watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST again: Stefan goes out exactly like Gaston. Which should not be too big a surprise, since both films were written by Linda Woolverton. The real surprise is how Woolverton could go from crafting one of Disney’s finest achievements to churning out this formulaic junk.
And just in case you were wondering, the ending sees Maleficent getting her wings back, leaving you to ponder yet another question: If it was that easy, why didn’t she do this sixteen years ago and avoid all the grief inflicted on everyone else? END SPOILERS
[rating=1] Avoid at all cost.
MALEFICENT (2014). Walt Disney Pictures. PG. 97 minutes. Directed by Robert Stomberg. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Brenton Thwaits, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley.
There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.
Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
[rating=2] JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.
For their 50th animated feature film, Walt Disney Pictures presents TANGLED – a CGI modernization of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Rapunzel.” Is this the new millennium equivalent of Disney classics like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, or is it a failed and schizophrenic attempt to meld the new and the old into one uneasy mix? Find out as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski this 3-D wonderland, asking such pertinent questions as: “Are two cute animal characters one too many?” and “Is this the world’s first homicidal chameleon?” Also this week, we bid farewell to director Irvin Kershner (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) and actor Leslie Nielsen (FORBIDDEN PLANET). Plus, the usual round-up of news, events, and home video releases.
This week, the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast scrutinizes a pair of sequels that seem to have nothing in common: SHREK FOREVER AFTER, the latest family-friend CGI fantasy from DreamWorks Animation; and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the latest horrifying episode in George A. Romero’s on-going zombie apocalypse, which began way back in 1968 with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. What’s the connection? Although each film has their worthwhile moments, both raise the question of whether their franchises are tapped out and in need of a hiatus to recharge their batteries. Also on the menu: a round-up of recent news, a preview of the week’s home video releases, including TRUE BLOOD: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON and THE ROAD; and listener mail.
Bryan Singer (X-MEN, SUPERMAN RETURNS) has been planning his re-working of classic fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk for a while now but, according to The Hollywood Reporter, he has now asked long-time collaborator Chris McQuarrie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, VALKYRIE) to re-write the script.
Singer’s interpretation of the story will follow a young farmer being charged with the mission of leading a group of men into the giants’ kingdom to stage a dangerous rescue. Sounds like quite a departure from the original fairytale and there’s no mention of magic beans or cows called Daisy but an unique twist on things rather than a literal transition of the story is probably exactly what this adaptation needs.
Singer has been back on the project ever since he rejected the offer to direct X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the new X-MEN film which focuses on a younger group of mutants being trained at Xavier’s institute. The script for JACK THE GIANT KILLER has been already been attempted by both Mark Bomback and Darren Lemke but now that McQuarrie is on the case it seems like things are finally heating up.
Casting for the film is set to start soon as Singer is planning to shoot JACK THE GIANT KILLER in England this summer.
Filmonic.com points us to a ProductionWeekly.com report that director Bryan Singer (X-MEN) will start filming JACK THE GIANT KILLER in July, with shooting planned to take place in London and Iceland, for a planned 2011 release.
Singer’s involvement with JACK THE GIANT KILLER could prevent him from rejoining the X-MEN franchise, despite recent overtures from producer Lauren Shuler Donner, asking him to consider X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and/or X-MEN 4.
The original JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962) is basically a rip-off of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, with director (Nathan Juran), leading man (Kerwin Matthews), and villain (Torin Thatcher) reprising their respective duties in a fairy-tale fantasy. The missing ingredient is the special effects magic of Ray Harryhausen (who later went on to craft the 1981 version of CLASH OF THE TITANS, also the subject of a recent remake).
One of Disney’s most engaging animated features in recent memory.
The 1990s were a pretty damn good time for Disney animated films; even though the film that really kicked off their 2nd golden age, THE LITTLE MERMAID, arrived in 1989, nearly all their animated films released subsequently (a list that includes THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and ALADDIN) were both critical darlings and box office behemoths. But the early part of the 21st century was not as kind – Pixar’s mix of digital animation, carefully crafted screenplays and rich voice characterization clashed sharply with an unmemorable batch of Disney duds like BROTHER BEAR and HOME ON THE RANGE. Soon, other studios like Fox and DreamWorks entered the fray and made major cake with their own digital efforts (ICE AGE and SHREK, respectively) that emphasized adult-friendly humor and celebrity casting. We can just imagine the uncomfortable board meetings held at the mouse compound where a directive to ‘get with the times’ resulted in films like CHICKEN LITTLE and MEET THE ROBINSONS that seemed to evaporate into the ether immediately after viewing. In 2006, Disney seemed to admit defeat and simply bought Pixar outright, elevating Pixar’s founder, John Lasseter, to “Chief Creative Officer” of Pixar and Disney’s animation division, where one of his first official acts was to set Disney back on the path of hand-drawn animation, forcing a reversal of company policy that sent the studio scurrying to rehire the animators it had so recently let go. The first fruit of that labor made its way to theaters in the 2009 holiday season, and arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week – THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Though nominally based on E D Baker’s ”The Frog Princess” (which was, in turn, inspired by the original Grimm tale “The Frog Prince”), THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG bears little resemblance to either, creating one of Disney’s most engaging animated features in recent memory.
Set in a beautifully rendered 1920s New Orleans, the story centers around Tiana, a seamstress’ daughter who saves every penny to realize her father’s dream of opening a restaurant. Tiana’s mother spent much of her life designing dresses for the wealthy “Big Daddy” La Bouff to bestow on his spoiled but sweet daughter, Charlotte, allowing the two girls the opportunity to grow an unlikely friendship over the years. Charlotte dreams of marrying a prince – even if it means kissing a frog like in the fairy tales read to the girls by Tiana’s mother – while the independent minded Tiana dreams of making her own way in the world. As young women, both almost have their respective dreams within their grasp: Charlotte has her hooks into the recently arrived Prince Naveen, and Tiana has saved just enough tip money to afford the down payment for the restaurant. The trouble begins when the local voo doo practitioner, Dr. Facilier, learns a few very useful facts: that the Prince is actually penniless and looking for a new revenue stream – preferably a young, attractive one – and that his long suffering servant would jump at the chance to trade places with his royal boss. Things come to a head at the party thrown by Big Daddy to welcome the Prince, as Tiana finds that she has a few days to up her bid or lose her dream location for the restaurant, prompting her to swallow her pride, and – in classic Disney tradition – wish upon a star, only to be presented with a Prince in a rather difficult situation.
Put simply, The Princess and the Frog is one of the very best animated films that we’ve seen in the last few years; its bouncy, energetic score evokes a dream-like (and charmingly Disneified) New Orleans, decked out in all its colorful jazz age glamour. As a return to hand-drawn animation, the film is a complete success, demonstrating a warmth that still remains outside the province of most digital animation. While the script represents a bit of an Achilles heel with the poorly developed Prince Naveen – one that may prevent the film from being remembered alongside Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, the previous hits from Princess co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker – the charm of Tiana is ample compensation.
Disney heavily touted the addition of an “African American” Princess character to its animation stable in the months leading up to the release of The Princess and the Frog, and we will admit to catching a whiff of the ever popular ‘urbanization’ (see either Alvin & the Chipmunks film for the depths that this can sink to – honestly, folks, it’s an insult to everyone). Ethnicity is actually quite deftly handled in the film; divisions of race (while Big Daddy is noticeably the only affluent character in the piece) aren’t ignored, but the story wisely sidesteps making a race-class statement and plows ahead with a celebration of Afro-American New Orleans life.
The show’s most memorable character, however, is the villainous voodoo conman, Dr. Facilier, voiced by the great Keith David (whom we vividly remember questioning another character’s belief in “voodoo bullshit” in John Carpenter’s The Thing). Keith has been an in-demand voice actor for years now, but this material seems tailor-made for his buttery intonations. Physically, the character bears a close resemblance to the similarly sinister character played by Jeffrey Holder in Live and Let Die, and really pushes the envelope of acceptable levels of ‘horror’ in a children’s film. John Goodman has been doing variations on the Big Daddy role going all the way back to The Big Easy, but damned if you ever catch him phoning it in. And though the name might not be familiar, nearly anyone who has watched prime time television in the last 5 years will recognize the voice of Bruno Campos coming out of Prince Naveen.
There’s an early sequence in The Princess and the Frog that plays along with one of the Academy Award-nominated songs, “Almost There,” as Tiana dreams about the nightclub she has been saving for. This wonderful sequence – along with Facilier’s gleefully macabre number, “Friends on the Other Side” –showcases the traditional Disney animation style at its best. And though it doesn’t quite sustain the energy of its crazy-fun first half, this is still our favorite Disney film in years.
Our review copy of The Princess and the Frog was the familiar 3-disc format that the studio has been using for their high-profile HD releases: a BD, a DVD with limited bonus materials, and a digital copy DVD – a nice option for those without BD players but with an eye pointed to the future. The image on the BD is little short of breathtaking. The 1080p image achieves a level of perfection that is usually reserved for digital animation; the film has a uniquely warm color palette and the images almost seem to glow from within – this is a flawless presentation.
As usual, all the extras are presented in HD, though the pickings feel a little slight, with more EPK-style featurettes than we usually like (“Disney’s Newest Princess,” in particular, feels too much like studio back-slapping and self promotion). We did enjoy “Conjuring the Villain,” as he was our favorite character, and had limited fun with the storyboard feature that lets you watch the original visual conception of the film along with the audio track.
Paramount Pictures releases yet another installment of the computer-animated franchise. This time the story has the titular green ogre making a deal with Rumpelstilskin in order to escape the drudgery of his married life and return to the glory of his earlier days. Unfortunately, Shrek ends up in a weird alternate reality, in which he and Fiona have never met, and he realizes he must restore the life he gave up. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and Antonio Banderas once again provide the voices, with help from Julie Andrews, Justin Timberlake, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Sedaris. Mike Mitchell directs, from a screenplay by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke. Release date: May 21.
A gentle fable that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.
One of the nicest perks of reviewing DVDs is the occasional arrival of a title that you may well never have sought out on your own. It might be because of the genre or the subject matter, or simply because it slipped under the radar. Master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s PONYO definitely falls into that category: a gentle fable inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.
When we first meet Brunhilde, she’s just one of many tiny goldfish living under the strict thumb of her father, Fujimoto, an unusual Nemo-like figure with magical powers who operates out of a flipper-powered submarine in a quest to “keep the oceans in balance”. He carries a deep mistrust for mankind, and keeps his children as far from human influence as possible. One day, the ever-curious Brunhilde strays from the rest of her family and winds up being trapped in a glass jar that floats to a coastal fishing town, where it’s spotted by 5-year-old Sosuke, who frees the fish but cuts his hand in the process. Sosuke renames Brunhilde Ponyo; she repays his kindness by licking the wound, causing it to heal almost instantly. This forms an unbreakable bond between the two, leading Ponyo to summon up all of her magic to transform herself into a human, separating herself from the sea forever.
The plot might sound paper thin, but Ponyo is as much about the fine details as the big picture. Miyazaki clearly takes great pleasure in illuminating small moments: Ponyo’s excited first reactions to the world in her new human body all center around little things, whether being hot or cold, or squealing with delight at each flavor of the simple meals prepared by Sosuke’s mother. There is a notion that Ponyo is one of Miyazaki’s lesser efforts; this feeling could have its roots in the common ground it shares with the Disney hit of 20 years ago, THE LITTLE MERMAID (based on the same source material), or the fact that the plot has little in the way of the traditional good vs. evil conflict that we expect in children’s fare. Ponyo is a film about wonder and discovery, and so gentle and sweet that one half-expects it to evaporate before our eyes. Amazingly, Miyazaki doesn’t let Disney’s immensely popular film of Anderson’s tale influence ether the animation or characterization – a much more difficult task than it sounds – but instead creates his own world, as far from the 1989 Disney film as it is from the large mass of cheap-jack Japanese anime (though certain character designs – particularly the gaunt, long-haired Fujimoto, do have their roots in the more traditional elements of the genre).
The story is seen through the eyes of the children, creating a film with somewhat unique worldview. This isn’t a story fraught with danger, nor are there plots to kill or kidnap; when Ponyo’s father comes looking for her, it’s out of love and a genuine fear for her safety among the humans who have been polluting the oceans. Miyazaki also earns points for his tactful handling of the story’s “green” messages: he never bashes you over the head with hectoring diatribes about ecology; a simple shot of the tons of man-made pollution that is drudged up from the ocean floor does it all without saying a word.
Disney’s Blu-Ray is, as expected, absolutely breathtaking. While traditional “analog” animation is never going to “pop” in HD the way that Pixar’s all-digital films will, Ponyo’s hand-drawn images have a depth and weight that few other animated titles can match. Obviously, water imagery plays a central role, and Miyazaki’s use of different variations of the color blue is astounding. The film’s most technically impressive scene – Ponyo’s return to the seaside town riding a series of magical, rolling waves (trust us, it makes sense when you’re watching it) – should be enough to drag Blu-ray resisters happily into the HD arena.
The main audio track is a lossless DTS English dub track, with a French language track present in a lower quality 5.1 mix. Now, we’ve seen other reviews that mention a Japanese 5.1 mix as well (and the disc jacket seems to confirm its presence); however, we were unable to locate it, either within the menu or by cycling through the tracks using the audio button. Unless we hear different from Disney, we’ll have to count this as a very unusual defect. The furor over the dubbing of animation is, for us, one of the ultimate non-issues of home video. While we understand perfectly the desire to preserve the performance of the original actors in a live-action film, we can’t imagine anyone getting their knickers in a twist over dubbed animation. The idea of watching a film with this level of visual artistry and spending most of the time concentrating on the subtitles at the bottom of the screen feels utterly ridiculous to us. Great care has obviously been taken with the English cast, and one would never know that they were not the original voices.
As with other premiere animated titles on Disney Blu-Ray, Ponyo is outfitted with quite a few special features, most of which are presented in HD. We enjoyed the optional opening, “Meet Ponyo,” which briefly outlines the relationship between Disney and Miyazaki’s home, Studio Ghibli – something that’s even further fleshed out in “The World of Ghibli,” an interactive look at some of the studio’s other titles, including Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. As for the rest:
“A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter” is exactly what is says, a 4-minute long chat between the Pixar chief and Miyazaki, in which they discuss some of the specific design elements of Ponyo.
“Creating Ponyo” features Miyazaki discussing his intentions in making the film, specifically tailoring it to younger children. “Ponyo and Fujimoto” concentrates on the relationship between father and daughter.
“The Nursery” focuses on the real nursery that Miyazaki opened at the studio.
“Producer’s Perspective” gives an overview of the entire production process.
“The Locations of Ponyo” – the longest featurette – takes us on a Ghibli retreat to a small seaside town that helped inspire the artwork and tone.
“Scoring Miyazaki” walks us through the scoring process for Ponyo and several other Ghibli titles.
“Behind the Microphone” gives us a BTS look at the performance of the English dub track.
The extras are rounded out by an assortment of trailers for Ponyo, including several from the original Japanese release.