Hayao Miyazaki, the name generates a huge buzz among fans of Japanese animation and his latest movie Ponyo is getting a big marketing push here in the States. Redubbed with big name Western actors (Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Tina Fey to name a few) Disney is distributing this as a must see kids film. Is it must see? Well, here's one opinion.
Going in I had seen only one Miyazaki movie, Howl's Moving Castle. I liked that movie, it was fanciful and interesting with some emotional pull and drama. My family likes Miyazaki's work a lot so I went with them to see it.
The story is about a young boy who finds a fish on the shore. The fish is a magical being born from a mystical mother and father that work to keep the Oceans "in balance". For most of the movie you only see the father, who used to be human and now hates human beings for polluting the waters. He plans some kind of magical means of destroying humanity, but his daughter (the fish the young boy finds) gets lost and is found by the boy. The little daughter fish is named Ponyo by the boy Sosuke and is cared for. Ponyo falls in love with Sosuke and wants to become human. After this, other things ensue but the crux is that Ponyo uses her magic to be like a human girl so she can hang around Sosuke. A major flood of town Sosuke lives at occurs and they go in search of the kid's mother who was last seen going to work. Meanwhile, the father of Ponyo plots to get the daughter back. The magical balance of nature is thrown off and only a specific outcome of Ponyo and Sosuke's relationship can bring balance back.
That's just the first third of Ponyo, this sucker is packed with enough storyline to fill a couple of blogs. But about the movie, remember there were four things I liked about the other Miyazaki movie: Fanciful, interesting, emotional pull and drama. For me, Ponyo only registered on one of these qualifications - fanciful.
This is a sort of fairy tale type of story filled with huge leaps of logic and jarring left turns. While it made this movie difficult to swallow, there was a nice unpredictability and imagination to the film as a whole. At a time when animation is becoming increasingly computer rendered with credence given to a sense of realism and semi-natural physics it was refreshing to see a movie say "I'm gonna throw reality entirely out the window and if I want to show people tidal waves transforming into giant fish that magical fish girls can run on top of to catch up with a speeding car them dammit I'm gonna do it." The animation itself was also well done, a deliberately loose, scribbly and at times water color like style is used lending a sense of childlike innocence.
Too bad the story itself with it's equally child like innocence can't keep up the interest. This movie is made not just from the point of view of a youngling as characters but even the story itself has the rambling, made up off the cuff delivery of an elementary school tale. Every kid has done this,where a trip to say the supermarket becomes epic in size as the white lies get bigger to make the story sound more interesting. "I went to the store, and I met a giraffe! The giraffe said he wants to be my friend but only if I stuff Bubble Yum in Bobby's ear only his ear became a cobra that wanted to eat me and that's why I hit Bobby with a brick only it became a brick house made of strawberries and we all sat down and had strawberry steaks which were great." The storytelling in this movie is like that. The unpredictability becomes a double edged sword, you can't figure out what will happen next because virtually anything could occur just because it suits the whims of the storyteller.
With the focus on wild events and children who actually act a lot like children, I found little to hold on to beyond the impressive visual aesthetic. The lone character to generate any emotion from me was Sosuke's mother Lisa, voiced by Tina Fey. Lisa is possibly the least responsible mother depicted in modern cinema. She drives recklessly through narrow windy mountain roads, doesn't bother to buckle up her kid while doing this at all. While caring for her child she becomes upset that the father works instead of coming home so she pops open a brewski to mellow out. After being told to drive to a safe place while the mountain their house is perched on is flooding, she opts to drive to her home anyway desperately outracing the flood waters close behind her. When Ponyo the fish becomes Ponyo the human girl, Lisa invites Ponyo into her home with a "stranger things have happened" attitude. And, best of all, Lisa decides to abandon her child and Ponyo at their home alone because her workplace "needs her" despite the massive flooding to the town and very mountain they reside. So Lisa is a memorable character for me because everytime she made a horrible decision and was depicted as a well liked responsible person for it I thought "WTF, does Japan not have child services or something!"
There are a lot of rave reviews for this movie online and to be honest, my mother, aunt and cousin all adored this movie so there's something I guess I'm missing. Nonetheless, my personal review of Ponyo is this - it's like being stuck for a few hours viewing the drawings taped to the wall by 4th graders on parent / teacher night in a school your kids don't even attend. Sure you'll see some things that took talent to make and can appreciate that, but it's not your kid so would you want to stare at it for hours? I don't have kids but I feel confident my answer would be no and that's why I found Ponyo to be a pretty but dull exercise.