Monday, August 31, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Ponyo

Ponyo (2008) 9/10
Ponyo is a magical fish who escapes her wizard father. Sosuke is a five year old boy who finds her and loves her unconditionally. Because of his love, Ponyo turns herself into a little girl, but the magic she unleashes to do so has cataclysmic results. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

This is sort of Little Mermaid without the sexism and campy villain. It is the youngest Miyazaki movie I've seen, in the sense that it really is for little kids, and one of the most Japanese (compared to, say, Howl's Moving Castle, which is based on a Welsh story).

There is so much to love about Ponyo. It is one of the most joyful movies I've ever seen. A long, almost wordless sequence of Ponyo, in girl form, chasing Sosuke & his mother in a car by running across the back of a giant fish, is exquisite. I mean, happiness isn't as easy to depict as you'd imagine. She's happy, she's full of life, and no words are needed. Later, she runs around a house, exactly as a five year old girl would, so joyful you want to applaud.

Then there is a rich realism. Like I said, Ponyo runs like a girl. Both kids act exactly like kids; not gussied up and fictionalized. On a couple of occasions, Ponyo falls asleep with exactly the entertaining loss of consciousness every parent has seen. Even better, Sosuke's mother, Lisa, is a wonderfully true character. She gets angry at her husband and pops a beer, then lays on the floor, tipsy and fuming. She's accepting, she's playful, she's disorganized, she's just...human. Not "Mom" or "Cartoon Mom," but human. I loved her.

Ponyo is the oldest of a large school of fish, the children of a wizard and magical mother we know little about until later in the film. She has enormous power but is just a little tot, so her father keeps her confined to prevent trouble. Naturally, she hates her confinement and "swims away." So far, we're in cliché land. I see a female protagonist being raised by a father, naturally I assume it's the classic Motherless Girl syndrome. In fact, Ponyo does have a mother, and it's a delight when we meet her. Since that information is held back in the film, I won't give it away, but her motherlessness serves as a perfect parallel to Sosuke's fatherlessness.

There's also a lot of juxtaposition of youth and age. Lisa works in a Senior Center that is next door to Sosuke's daycare. A five year-old boy drives the action, largely supported by a group of old ladies.

Needless to say, the film is exquisitely beautiful. Because I like to allow my eyes to focus on the imagery, I prefer dubbing to subtitles, but I know I'm a minority among film buffs. For that reason, I haven't dwelled on the Western voice actors in the dubbed version, but they do a great job, and they're quite a pedigreed bunch: Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and more.