Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ponyo. Oh.

Studio Ghibli movies occupy a unique place in many people's hearts. Just as Disney did when I was growing up, and which Pixar & Dreamworks battled over ten years ago, they've carved out a niche of "kids' films that adults can enjoy, and admit to enjoying, even if they haven't got kids of their own". Until relatively recently, most kids hadn't even heard of this amazing Japanese studio: it was only a few die-hard anime fans who even knew of them. I introduced my mum and my kids to My Neighbor Totoro, and the Japanese were amazed that us gaijin had any idea who Totoro was. It wasn't really until Princess Mononoke got a dubbed US release (featuring Gillian 'X Files' Anderson and translated by Neil 'Sandman' Gaiman) that they began to become even remotely mainstream.

Miyazaki has established a growing legion of fans in the US and UK, and now every Ghibli release is eagerly awaited. Ponyo, however, has surpassed them all in terms of the anticipation and distribution. Last weekend it opened at a massive 927 theaters across the US, compared to just 38 for Mononoke and a mere 26 for the critically acclaimed Spirited Away.

It's loosely based on The Little Mermaid - very loosely. "Inspired by" would probably be more accurate. I won't spoil the story: if you really want to know, you can just Google around. (Or Bing, I suppose. Does anyone actually Bing?) As usual, it's beautifully animated. Miyazaki continues to avoid 3D animation, and sticks with traditional 2D. As with Howl's Moving Castle, he combines flat-coloured figures with painted scenery, giving a clean, fresh look that's worlds away from Wall-E and the like. It's reminiscent of pre 1960s Disney, but with the brightness and detail that modern film stocks and animation can give.

Sadly, though, this was the first time I found myself not enjoying a Ghibli movie. It's not a bad film. In fact, it's a very good film. It's beautifully made and charmingly told. Some may argue that the US script is a bastardisation of the original Japanese version, but frankly, that doesn't bother me. I was quite happy to watch the US dub, and don't feel the need to locate a subtitled version to compare them.

Simply, it was just too childish for me. Under tens will love it, and it's a great movie for curling up on a sofa with the little ones. But it didn't really do anything for me, and I ended up feeling unsatisfied. The hero is, after all, five years old, and the film doesn't really have the action-based appeal that Howl, Mononoke, Nausicaa, or - my personal favourite - Porco Rosso have. And while Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service are also pretty childish, they are at least aimed at slightly older kids.

It felt - and make of this what you will - like an anime Disney film. Sweet, saccharine, and something I've grown out of. I'm not saying it's not worth seeing. Just be prepared for something a little younger than Miyazaki's usual offerings.


Richard Grove said...

I couldn't disagree with you more, Matt. Ponyo is anything but a child's film. I think Miyazki has always made animated films for adults and Ponyo is no different. Take for example his continuing theme of ecology in his films; certainly not aimed at children. And what Disney film would feature a parent like Ponyo's mom jeopardizing their lives with wild, reckless driving? I think Miyazaki is often a cheerful director, but certainly not saccarine or sentimental. Leave that and the action for Pixar.

Respectfully, Miyazki has made another masterpiece for adults as well as children.

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