Saturday, August 15, 2009
It's been far too long since I've written a review of anything artsy or cultural. However, the MIyazaki film Ponyo (otherwise titled Ponyo by the Cliffs by the Sea) seemed more than blog-worth for its combination of hand drawn animation with its Hans-Christian inspired Little Mermaid-esque story. This confluence of art and ideas demanded a few thoughts.
I'll start with the bad news first. The story of Ponyo is irregular and asks one to suspend disbelief in unimaginable ways. Five year old Sosuke finds what he believes to be a goldfish stuck in a jar. As it turns out, this is no ordinary goldfish, but Bruunhilde, the headstrong daughter of a powerful wizard whose job it is to maintain the balance of the sea with his magical potions. Despite her father's attempts to catch and keep her in his magic world, Bruunhilde prefers life with Sosuke entirely, even his onomatopoieic name for her: Ponyo. She sprouts legs and arms and returns to the surface with one of the most stunning animated sequences I have ever seen. Ponyo runs upon the waves of giant fish alongside the winding cliff roads leading towards Sosuke's house. Up until this point, the narrative of the film is quite strong, but it gives way to final third act that not only broke with my laws of movie plausibility, but also lacked narrative flow. Sosuke's mother leaves her five year old son and Ponyo alone in the middle of a tsunami-like storm to check on the elderly people in the retirement centre where she works. I can accept a human faced fish that sprouts chicken legs and a toy boat transformed to ridable size, but I simply can not accept that any mother, save for one on crack, would leave her five year old son alone. From there, Ponyo and Sosuke begin a gentle, child's quest to find the missing mother, unaware that they are being tested to see if Sosuke will commit to Ponyo forever. There is an allusion that she will turn into sea foam should the quest fails, but this particular threat never seems a possibility. Also, there is a subplot about the moon coming too close to the earth and throwing the forces of nature out of balance that seems to reverse itself deus-ex-machina-like and loosely hinged on Sosuke's choice. Oh, and there's a Cocoon moment when the elderly ladies are running around in a protective bubble to bear witness to Sosuke's choice. What??? I suppose last, but not least, how can saltwater Ponyo survive in a bucket of freshwater? Details, people, details.
Provided that leaving a five year old alone in a house in the middle of an environmental threat (tsunami-like conditions) is perfectly acceptable and provided that the whole moon subplot can be ignored, the rest of the story is charming and kitten-like, with a wide eyed wonder that is at turns sweetly humorous, poignant, and grandmotherly wise. The characters are endearing, especially Sosuke who is a genuinely good and flawless boy. He listens to his mother, endures the taunts of his girl classmates with grace, shows gentility to the elderly ladies, and takes his promises to others very seriously. Ponyo is equally lovable, a wild child red headed sprite who clearly didn't order the kosher meal for the plane with her requests for "Ham!" Sosuke's mother may be the most likable of all, though, with her intense wonder-mother ways -- closing doors with her feet, driving like a maniac, and her obvious frustration with her husband's absence. Small moments add Japanese humor to the film, such as when Ponyo and Sosuke share a noodle bowl with some ham and eggs that "magically" appear while their eyes are closed.
Where the movie excels, however, is its visual punch and imagination. Hand drawn animation is still my favorite and Miyazaki gives a feast of details. An octopus slides into the open door of Sosuke's house. A flock of sea creatures run across the seaside rocks. The ocean itself is the most breathtaking of all, changing forms and character as needed to suit the story. I immediately thought of the reputed number of words for snow in the Eskimo vocabulary -- only those who live by the sea could understand how the sea has many moods and nuances. The underwater world and its collision with the human one is a masterpiece of imagination. The five year old perspective makes simple things meaningful -- a candle grown to giant size, for example. Reflections in mirrors, in the water, and the effect of light and wind are whispered details that elevate this film above many others, even those filmed in HD.
All in all, Ponyo is delightful and sweet story, but problematic in its narrative, especially in the final third. While I am glad to inhabit a fantasy world, I can't let go of certain realities, such as the responsibility of a mother to her child. The likable characters and animation don't make up for the flaws, but are admirable in their own right.