Saturday, August 15, 2009
Miyazaki Hayao might be a humble man aware of his mortality, or he might just be an excellent showman. Upon the release of his previous feature, Howl's Moving Castle, he announced that his ninth film would be his last. Four years later, he's come back with Ponyo (originally titled Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), a magical return to form after the gorgeous but rushed HMC. It also marks a return to almost exclusively hand-drawn animation after years of (seamlessly) integrated CGI.
There are generally two kinds of Miyazaki films: the innocent adventure (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service), and the more mature matter, still viable for a young audience but with explicitly adult issues (Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle). Spirited Away, his finest work, walks the line between the two. Ponyo is a return to the first type of film, which he hasn't fully made since 1992's Porco Rosso, and to say that it's a beauty is almost an insult to one of the most invaluable voices in modern cinema, much less contemporary animation.
Surprisingly, Miyazaki works with clear sources of inspiration with this film. Where Pixar crafts its masterpieces around a certain influence (A Bug's Life a clear take on Seven Samurai, Wall•E an homage to 2001), Miyazaki usually comes up with something totally original. Ponyo, the story of a magical goldfish who wishes to become human, has a clear Western analogue in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, but I'm afraid that I'm selling the film far too short by implying that it is some unimaginative retread. Ponyo is a gorgeous, fully-realized fairy tale that displays Miyazaki at his best, even though the film as a whole might not reach the level of some of his established classics.
Ponyo, the goldfish in question, lives with her father, the wizard Fujimoto. Once a human, Fijimoto decided to use his powers to save the planet and became a sea-dweller (he still retains his human form, though). Ponyo finds life with her father stifling, so he slips away unnoticed, only to be trapped in a jar floating along with other garbage near the shoreline. A 5-year-old boy, Sosuke, rescues the fish and discovers she has magical powers and gives the fish her name. Before long, she can speak and even profess a love for Sosuke.
So everything's fine, right? Well, apparently Ponyo, the offspring of the sorcerer and a sea goddess has magical powers reaching far beyond her father's and rivaling her mother's. If she stays on land and becomes human, she will throw the world out of balance and bring destruction upon the Earth. So, Fujimoto finds her and steals her back, but you can't keep a determined toddler down, especially when she can alter the properties of objects with her mind. Her escape back to the surface world is one of the most beautiful moments I can recall in recent animation: her tinier goldfish sisters transform into giant blue fish which actually become the waves of the ocean as Ponyo runs along their backs to reach her human friend. The 68-year-old Miyazaki drew much of this sequence himself, and the level of detail is so rich that I was tempted to accept this magical moment, drawn in soft primary colors rather than "realistic" tones, as perfectly plausible.
Ponyo invites comparisons to Miyazaki's earlier "innocent" films in that it has no villain to propel the story: Ponyo resents her father and calls him a dark wizard, but he clearly has a reason to be protective of his daughter (outside of the normal reasons a father would protect his child). Ponyo mainly resents her father because of his emotional distance, a problem Sosuke shares with his own dad, a fisherman who spends much of the year on a barge away from home. The two have similar mothers as well: caring and loving but pre-occupied, Lisa with her work at a senior care facility, and Granmammare with the sea.
These two find "love" with each other, and it's easy to scoff at the idea of two 5-year-olds falling in love, particularly as Ponyo's fate as either a fish or a human lies in whether Sosuke truly loves her. But I think some people may get caught up on word "love" itself and assume, as a nation fed films by Hollywood, that Miyazaki means some sort of fluffy romance; love can exist without romance (a number of simple-minded "philosophical" viewpoints state that the two can never even co-exist in a relationship), and the Platonic bond Ponyo and Sosuke share is as real as whatever everlasting love is normally foisted upon us at the cinema, and often far more real than that.
In each other they finally have a concrete emotional connection with someone, one that can always be reciprocated because neither has any other concerns in life. Is it certain that these two will be together forever, as friends or something more? No, but childhood is not about planning ahead, it's about the wonder of the present; you can't worry about the future when you don't even have a full grasp on what's currently going on around you.
I saw the film in a sparsely filled theater (though I still got stuck with a kid right behind me kicking my seat) and even as I lost myself in its lush splendor I wondered how the kids in the audience would take it. To my surprise and delight, most of them seemed to be entertained enough that I was treated to one of the calmest children's film screenings of recent memory (again, except for the one right. behind. me.). Most kids' films come with a villain and a snappy plot, as the movie industry treats them like little adults. Ironically, that's only because they treat adults like children in the first place, so we're all basically drinking from the same baby formula.
It's nice to see a film -- Pixar is wonderful at this as well -- that does not talk down to youth. Miyazaki's environmentalist concerns are on full display as Fujimoto struggles to navigate his submersible through the slime and trash left by humans, as is his feminist streak that was so sorely lacking in Howl's Moving Castle: Ponyo may be a bit of a brat, yes, but she's strong-willed and kind and the relationship between her and Sosuke never requires one to dominate (even subconsciously) the other. The director also has a way for slipping more mature lines into his work, and there's a terrific conversation concerning how mothers eat to make milk, explained to a confused Ponyo by an equally uninformed Sosuke. Too, I spotted a reference to Wagner's Ring cycle in Ponyo's original name, Brünnhilde, also the name of the Valkyrie daughter of the god Wotan. She too disobeyed her father and was sealed away as punishment, though Ponyo's liberation is considerably easier than Brünnhilde's.
This is still a children's tale, mind you, but one that invites viewers of all ages to marvel at its meticulous construction; I don't want to knock the talents of Pixar or any other CG-based animation studio, but there's just something so much more personal about doing it by hand. After being disappointed with Howl's, which felt more like a loving tribute to the director than one of his own works, I'm thrilled to report that Ponyo has nearly everything that makes Miyazaki great. It does drag a bit in the beginning, but for a two-hour film with little in the way of conflict to only slightly drag (and still hold the attention of my young audience) speaks to the quality of the work.