Last night I watched Ponyo. I've been looking forward to seeing it for quite some time. In fact this was the first movie that I made a point to get from Netflix exactly on its release date. As an animation fan, Hiyao Miyazaki films are required viewing for me, as they should be for any other animation fans out there. When the Sci-Fi channel was still new, they would have Anime Week, where every night they would play a new film, dubbed of course. This was my first real exposure to anime, and I remember being particularly hooked by Project A-ko and a compilation film called Robot Carnival. My brother and I took this interest with us to the video store, and one of the first we rented was Castle of Cagliostro. I fell in love with that movie. I loved the characters and the story, but I also loved watching Lupin III fall from a great height, with another person landing on top of him, yet still walking away unharmed, and I loved watching him leap from one building to another in a manner no one should be able to do. And its not like he has super powers.. it's just a fantastical part of the film, in the same way that the Looney Tunes can walk off a cliff and yet not fall until they look down.
As I've followed Miyazaki and most of his films, its this love of the fantastical mixed with the ordinary that makes him so wonderful. There are only two films of his I truly love: CoC and Spirited Away. The rest are good, they're just not the type of movie I would sit down to for repeated viewings. Ponyo now sits on a scale just below those two movies, but a cut above the rest. Visually, this movie is absolutely breathtaking. The sea creatures are so large, robust, and beautiful. When the waters swell and begin to take over everything, it is literally a feast for the eyes. In the opening scene when Ponyo's father is creating? feeding? creatures in the sea all you can do is just ogle at it. I'm not a fan of Wall-E because most of the dialogue-less beginning was simply unable to hold my attention. The exact opposite is true for this film. There are many scenes in which there are no dialogue.. but you're not lacking because there's simply so much to look at, so much going on. Even the everyday normal scenes, like Sosuke and his mother going to the grocery store and then bringing the groceries home, are a delight. The way his mother struggles with holding the groceries as she opens their front door... it's just so true to life! Part of what makes Miyazaki so great is that he puts just as much focus on realism as he does on fantastical. This helps to make the fantastical moments feel more real, more likely to happen in the world you are seeing.
The story here is basically that of The Little Mermaid, a story I have a great affection for thanks to the Disney film. I remember being so surprised to find out the original story had such a tragic ending.. her love is not returned and she ends up turning into sea foam. The story in Ponyo once again takes it in a slightly different direction. The threat of her turning to sea foam is there, but in this case she is really more of a goldfish (be it a rather odd one with a face) and her affections are toward a five year old boy. This lends the story a great deal of innocence and keeps it at a very sweet level. The story feels like its made much more for young children than for adults. When Ponyo's mother and father are saying that if the boy can't love her she will turn to sea foam, I foresaw a much more mature and different ending. As an adult, I could not help but think that surely a young boy of five would not continue to love this same girl for the rest of his life. The ending of the movie however, doesn't go anywhere near that far, and ends "happily ever after", in a rather abrupt fashion (or at least that's how it felt for me).
However, unless I'm going crazy, I'm pretty sure the title in the beginning of the movie said "Part 1." At first I thought the story might jump around a bit, and there would be other parts in the movie itself.. but it never did. This leads me to believe that maybe their story isn't a happily ever after at all.. that perhaps in the end, Ponyo will turn into sea foam, just as the little mermaid did in the original story. Or maybe, if you're an optimist, you can choose to believe that their love was young and pure enough that they will grow up together forever. I couldn't find any mentions of a possible sequel being planned, and I've never seen any other Miyazaki film with a sequel really.. so even if I'm totally wrong, I kind of really like this idea of mine.. it helps save the movie from the ending which just left a sour taste in my mouth. Of course, that sour taste may be completely my own fault, and definitely isn't something that would make me tell anyone not to watch it. Just remember that you're watching a children's fairy tale, and you probably won't be as disappointed as I was.
I should point out that I only watched the subtitled version of this film. Disney has been making the dubbed versions of Miyazaki films for quite some time now (7 years, according to the bonus feature on the disc), and they often pick out a very stellar cast, a mix of well known actors and their stock children stars. I can't fault this as it probably gets a lot of people to watch these films that wouldn't otherwise. For me, I just love the sound of the Japanese language in general, and I find the tone of voice they normally use fits these movies a lot better than the dubs do. Anime is known for its extremely expressive faces, and I think a lot of actors/voice directors seem to think that just because a character's mouth is opening a little wider than they do in American animation, said character needs to whine or shout all the time. Meanwhile, if you slip over to the Japanese voice actors.. well, they're not doing that as far as my foreign ears can tell. Another problem is that English dub translations try to fit the mouth movements, so the translation is generally not as literal as the subtitles. A fun way to see the difference in this is to select the English voice track on your DVD along with the English subtitles. Sometimes they're saying the same things in a re-worded manner, and sometimes you get quite different things being said. Obviously, don't do that on a first time run through unless you're really good at multi-tasking.
One thing that left me a little puzzled in the "lost in translation" department was why Sosuke refers to his mother and father by their first names. At first I thought maybe Lisa was his stepmother, but later he also refers to his father by name, and many people refer to Lisa as his mother. Ponyo talks about her mother and father only by those handles so I'm just not sure what that's all about.
Definitely worth the rent, unless you just can't stand fairy tales for some reason.