Sunday, May 16, 2010

PONYO: Hayao Miyazaki, king of animation, is back with a must-watch for kids (grown-ups, too)

Remember Spirited Away? Howl's Moving Castle? Princess Mononoke? My Neighbor Totoro?  If not, no matter, for the man who gifted us with all of them is back with his new one: PONYO -- which may be the most enchanting of them all.  Hayao Miyazaki (below) -- who, along with Satoshi Kon (Paprika) is the co-king of animation worldwide (that's TrustMovies' opinion, anyhow) -- does things the old way, via color and line, tale and theme.  Yet he keeps renewing himself and growing with each project.

Ponyo is at once so sweet, dear, magical and smart that Miyazaki (shown at left) has knocked another one out of the park. Unfortunately, way too many of America's kids never saw before it disappeared from cinema stadiums.  Now that it's here on DVD, no excuses: Get your kids and grand-kids to watch it ASAP. The Walt Disney company, who picked it up for U.S. distribution, has added what seems to me to be an excellent English-dubbed track using the voices of fine actors from Cate Blanchett to Matt Damon, Tina Fey to Liam Neeson. The result is lovely.  Kids should revel in it, while adults may find it difficult to tear themselves away from the screen, so beautiful, strange and moving are many of its images.

The story begins in one of those fantastical universes Miyazaki loves to create: one that, initially, leaves you puzzled by its unfam-
iliarity (I suspect that, given their culture and history, Japanese kids and their parents cotton to it immediately). This particular universe is undersea, where some sort of wizard (spoken in splendid voice by Neeson) is up to no good.  His "daughters," all of them tiny fish are led by the largest of this small set, who will come to be known by the little boy (above) who "catches" her, as Ponyo.

Ponyo longs to get away from the inhibiting clutches of "dad," which she does, and the adventures that Sosuke (the boy) and Ponyo enjoy are delightful and involve Sosuke's mom (above), who works at a senior center; several of those seniors (below, voiced by the likes of Cloris Leachman and Betty White); a flood that seem to put much of the landscape underwater (giving Miyazaki and his animators the opportunity to dazzle us with sights that combine two usually quite separate locales, shown further below, at right); and a gorgeous and benign enchantress (shown at bottom).

What makes a Miyazaki movie so special, aside from the often breathtaking beauty of color, movement and design, are his themes -- which tend to resonate rather strongly in terms of our world today.  Here, he tackles (but gently) the environment, mankind's destruction of same, pacifism, not judging others by their appearance, and even the idea of women as creatures of and from the eternal sea.  Don't worry, the filmmaker never insists, yet kids won't come away from his work empty-headed.

Miyazaki enchants us with the little things, like steam rising from bowls of delicious soup, or the fact that Ponyo has a surprising yen for ham. Not to mention her gift for magic, used in odd, funny ways from time to time.

After all the noise and chases, fart jokes and fat jokes, yowls and double-entendres the make up so many "animated" films these days, it is almost amazing that one can be riveted by imagination and beauty (Ponyo, above, skipping over the giant waves like some slap-happy, juvenile Jesus, walking on water).  The only yowling here occurs when Sosuke has lost his mom; listening to this, as voiced by Noah Cyrus, is enough to break your heart.

So sit down with the kids one day soon, and give over to this Japanese master.  I plan to do just this with my two grandchildren, five and two, this coming week.  I want to find out what they make of the work of Miyazaki-san.


Amaris Castillo said...

Wowww Jim, thank you so much for sharing this review. I loved "My Neighbor Totoro" as a kid and this film looks equally as magical. Thanks for including those beautiful images as well, to give us a better understanding of what you described. Great job!

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Amaris. Once you've seen PONYO, check in and let us know what you thought. And, yes, I do try to find images that in some way demonstrate what I'm trying to say. (Sometimes, it's hard, though, when you can find only a very few visuals. But for this film, there were plenty available.)