Ponyo – DVD Review

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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.

Ponyo (2009)
Ponyo rides the waves in the film's most technically impressive scene

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.
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Ponyo – Animation Film Review

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, PONYO (“Gake no ue no Ponyo” or “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”), could be nicely summed up as charmingly innocent. I wasn’t even sure they still made films like it. It’s just a simple slice of pleasant storytelling. And you know what – audiences very much enjoy it. You might think the younger set so jaded and – and, yes, cynical – that they couldn’t or wouldn’t sit still for an animated story of PONYO’s nature. However, one of the greatest pleasures in watching PONYO was to experience the joyful sounds of laughter and “aaaahhhs” coming from both old and young alike. It restores one’s faith in the universal sensitivity within the hearts of that which we call humankind.
I’ve enjoyed—and written about—the laughter of children before while watching “children’s” films, but this felt different. There were no wisecracking donkeys or hip jungle animals constantly reminding us through timely (and one day dated) jokes about our modern society. The characters in PONYO were likeable and refreshing partially because there were really no pretensions involved. In a loud, posturing summer (anyone see the mess that was TRANSFORMERS 2?) this little film is a welcome reprieve. It might make for nice comedown to take in after watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS over the August 21st weekend.
I wouldn’t say PONYO is one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces—it’s not quite up there with PRNCESS MONONOKE, SPIRITED AWAY or HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE—but it is so very nice to relax with as to make one wish one could share it with others. As I say, it’s not a complicated story: a five-year-old boy (Frankie Jonas – English version) finds a “goldfish” trapped in a bottle along the shoreline, near where he lives. He’s captivated by the unique little “fish” and decides to keep her, naming her PONYO (Noah Lindsey Cyrus – English version). Ah, but PONYO is not what you’d call a normal “fish.” She is, in fact, the offspring of a powerful water wizard (Liam Neeson – English version) and sea goddess (Cate Blanchett – English version).
As Miyazaki would have it, PONYO is every bit as captivated by the young boy. She winds up falling in (puppy) love with him and so desires to become human that she uses some of her father’s sorcery to make the leap…literally, as we come to see. But the use of this powerful magic upsets the balance of nature and all must be set right one way or another if the world is to be saved from the effects of an ever-approaching moon.
Ponyo (2009)The delicate balance of nature is a recurring theme within PONYO. The imbalance created by Ponyo’s use of a powerful magic needs to be acted upon, but proper care of nature is also brought up several times by the wizard, Fujimoto, in relation to the manner in which man treats the world that surrounds him. So one could say that little Ponyo’s predicament may be a metaphor for mankind’s current state and what we should all be mindful of in our own environment. These points are made in a subtle, friendly fashion. There is no bludgeoning like, oh, say, Oliver Stone might do (I’m sure no one out there thinks Stone’s probable sequel to WALL STREET is going to lightly dance among the tulips).
No, this is a buoyant, happy tale. And the animation holds true to that sense in a lovely way. Some of it is bold, magical & colorful, and some of it is soft, wispy and painterly, even to the point of showing us what look like the master’s brush strokes. It is all truly a restful treat for the eyes. And in Miyazaki’s animated world everything has life to it.
It’s all well supported by Joe Hisaishi’s music score too. Though it stands out just a tad too much at a couple of junctures, it’s a lush work, as inspired by more traditional classical music. It very much fits the lyrical pace and artistry of the film.
Hayao Miyazaki is one the greatest and best loved animators & storytellers that Japan has ever produced, and his country knows it well. He’ll most likely go down in film history as the Akira Kurosawa of animation. In 2002 the Japanese (film) Academy honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. He has essentially become a national treasure, and his films do tremendous box-office business in the Land of the Rising Sun, not to mention elsewhere. Over here he won the coveted Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003 (hint: it was for one of the three I mentioned earlier), and he has won and been nominated for numerous other film related awards.
What this all boils down to is that Mr. Miyazaki’s work is worth taking note of. One will always find something creative, sincere and of merit within it. And though PONYO isn’t his grandest work, it is a sweet breath of fresh air, as soft and caressing as a gentle ocean breeze.
PONYO(Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures/Buena Vista, 2008/2009; 103 min.) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Steve Alpert (English version), Kathleen Kennedy (English version), Frank Marshall (English version), and Toshio Suzuki. Executive produced by Koji Hoshino, John Lasseter (English version), and Hayao Miyazaki. Co-Executive Produced by Naoya Fujimaki, Ryoichi Fukuyama, and Seiji Okuda. Cinematography by Atsushi Hisaishi. Art Direction by Noboru Yoshida. Chief Animation by Katsuya Kondo. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Edited By Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Seyama. Cast (English version): Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Kurt Knutsson, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Jennessa Rose, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White. Cast (Japanese version): Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Joji Tokoro, Tomoko Yamaguchi, Yuki Amami, Kazushige Nagashima, Akiko Yano, Shinichi Hatori, Tokie Hidari, Eimi Hiragi, Tomoko Naraoka, Nozomi Ohashi, and Kazuko Yoshiyuki. MPAA Rating: G – for the whole planet.
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Miyazaki's Ponyo opens on August 14

Advance word says that Japanese anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film – which mixes Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” with Japanese folk tales – is another masterpiece, this time aimed at five years olds. Miyazaki has opted for a simpler style of animation to tell his fairy tale, relying on old-fashioned hand-drawn cells with pastel colors instead of sharply defined computer-generated imagery. “I don’t think high quantities and density of information have any relation with the appeal of animation. I tried 3D and don’t hate it, though I found hand drawing is able to tell more than that.” Says Ghibl World.com: “The animation is so realistic and complex, it is as if Miyazaki’s soul is telling his audience “I will show you my power!!
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Cybersurfing: HR praises Ponyo

Hollywood Reporter reviews PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA, the latest anime film from Hayao Miyazaki (PRINCESS MONONOKE), which screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Their bottom line assessment: “A superb work of Japanese fantasy from animation wizard Miyazaki that transcends age barriers.” The film is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Little Mermaid,” which previously inspired the Disney film of the same title.

A contemporary Japanese backdrop brings the Andersen story closer home, while the total absence of CGI work — the whole film is drawn by animators — heightens the film’s childlike charm. In Miyazaki’s fertile imagination, the ordinary and magical worlds blend into each other; both are full of marvels. Perhaps his most imaginative representation is the sea itself, which he transforms into a living, pulsating character. On another level, the sea can represent the subconscious mind bursting onto the land above. The tender mother-child relationship of Sosuke and Lisa, and Ponyo and her radiant Mother of the Sea, strikes a deep chord of universality.

Rival anime genius Mamoru Oshii also has a film scheduled for the festival, a “modern parable” titled THE SKY CRAWLERS.