Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ponyo (Ponyo On the Cliff) (Miyazaki 2008)

It is easy to get caught up in the surface beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 animated film Ponyo, with its beautiful design and fluid animation. Furthermore, with its child protagonists, light hearted fantasy narrative and somewhat cutesy humour, it would be easy to dismiss the film as little more than a colourful distraction, without any weight or substance to it. Such an interpretation would miss the brilliant subversion of the film, turning children’s fantasy films on their heads, with the end resulting being a film that isn’t so much an adventure story as it is a study in human behaviour.

The story of Ponyo, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairytale The Little Mermaid, is that of Ponyo, a young fish whose father Fujimoto, a wizard of the sea. Ponyo wishes to become human after meeting a five year old boy named Sosuke, a young boy living with his mother on a cliff. When Ponyo’s father discovers that she is starting to become human after accidentally tasting human blood, he does his best to prevent her from changing. However, Ponyo escapes and absorbs much of her father’s magic potions, allowing her to become human, but unknowingly start altering reality in dangerous ways at the same time. Can everything be put right with the world, and if so, by whom?

Magic, a world in danger, conflict between parents and children, and someone who desires to be human: sounds like a typical children’s film, right? While the basic elements that make up the story of the film may be standard, Miyazaki utilizes the surface familiarity of the narrative to play with the expectations of the audience. Unlike similar narratives, this is not a children’s coming of age story, with our protagonists learning about the adult world and finding their place in the world: the child characters already know and understand world and their place in it. Rather, Ponyo is a film which invites the viewer to adopt the point of view of a child, and watch as the adults in the story play catch up with the children. The parents of this story spend the film being both amazed and panicked at what their children know and desire, and must confront these feelings for both their own benefit and that of their children.

The end of the world storyline isn’t the dramatic thrust of the film, but rather a metaphor for the feelings of Fujimoto. Fujimoto spends nearly the entire film in a panic, regardless of how small an issue may be, so when it comes time for the dramatic reveal of the world supposedly descending into chaos, it comes off as comical rather than serious: everything when it concerns his daughter feels like the end of the world. This panicked behaviour on the part of Fujimoto is contrasted to the behavior of the other adults in the film, who almost entirely react to events in a positive light, no matter how serious or bizarre they may be: fish becoming girls? Random tsunamis? All of these things are part of life, and it is simply best to just get on with living and not worry about them, particularly if it comes to one’s kids.

The film however is not structured around Fujimoto, but around his daughter Ponyo. The expectation would be that the film would follow her attempts to become human and learning from Sosuke. Once again however, Miyazaki avoids the obvious by not making this the focus of the narrative either. Ponyo does not need to learn to be human: she already is human, in spirit, mind and behaviour. While her reactions to even the smallest of everyday activities and items may seem odd, they are no different than the way most five year olds react to the world, with energy and excitement at the discovery of new things. She doesn’t need to learn anything, nor does Sosuke need to learn to accept her for what she is: he does so from the moment he meets her. What they lack is not moral or spiritual knowledge, but merely technical knowledge of the world, none of which fazes them as they acquire it. The film thus becomes about perception and knowledge, and the bridging of the gaps between different groups when it comes to these issues.

The end result of Miyzaki’s approach to the subject matter is a surprising mature film which avoids the simplistic good vs. evil narratives of most family films, substituted instead with careful observations about human behaviour and relationships. It is touching, sweet, and memorable film, something most often lacking in modern family films made in the west.

Ponyo as a film is virtually flawless, technically impressive and well written. However, if there is one complaint to be found, it is not with the Japanese language version of the film, but with the Disney lead dubbing of the film. Now, putting aside my own hatred for dubbing for a moment, I can accept that the target audience of the film likely cannot read yet, making subtitles a problem. However, celebrity voice casting for the hell of it is/was/always shall be a bad idea, and the English dub of Ponyo is a prime example as to why. Most of the time, celebrity voice casting is a distracting practice, taking the viewer out of the film as they try and guess who is voicing each character. Worse, a number of the adult actors are bad or simply miscast. Liam Neeson, a brilliant actor, is completely wrong for the role of Fujimoto, being too controlled and too regal for a character that was better suited to a more energetic actor, such as David Tennant. Then there is Tina Fey, who spends the entire film sounding as if she is reading off of the script. I know she literally was, but her performance here is static and sounds like a narrated story book recording. Fey is a great actress, but honestly, a selection of professional voice actors would have served the film better.

Still, such a complaint is a small one when it comes to an otherwise masterful film. Ponyo is simply a joyous film, one which is hard to come away from without feeling like taking a fresh look at the world around you, being cute and sentimental without sacrificing intelligence.

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