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The continuing popularity of theatrical animation shows no sign of waning, with both critics and the mass audience embracing different styles and techniques. Pixar has floored audiences with consistent hits that compare well with the best of today's live-action filmmaking. The public has also welcomed features that use traditional drawn animation, and even intricate stop-motion fantasies.
Riding high on the trend are the films from Japan's Ghibli Studio by master writer and animator Hayao Miyazaki. While still not exactly a household name, Miyazaki can claim a large and devoted following in the states. His gentle, thoughtful tales of fantasy routinely bridge the gap between Japanese and western culture. Ghibli's latest picture is Ponyo, a masterful tale of magic and nature seen through the imagination of a child. Dazzlingly animated and imbued with a spirit of affection and human kindness, Ponyo is a real rarity -- a worthwhile show for small children that will excite their parents as well.
Little Sosuke is a well-adjusted five year-old who lives in a cottage on a bluff overlooking Japan's inland sea. Father is a sea captain, and mother has taught Sosuke how to signal to his boat as it passes. Mother pouts because her husband never seems to be home. She works with the old ladies at a retirement home right next to Sosuke's school. Most of the ladies enjoy the young boy's company.
That's when Sosuke finds a curious little fish-thing that he names "Ponyo". Little does he know that Ponyo is really Brunhilde, an adventurous fish-sprite and the daughter of the Spirit of the Sea, a benign aquatic Earth Mother. Brunhilde's father is the wizard Fujimoto, a former human who now experiments with an magical elixir that will empower sea creatures to reclaim the Earth from destructive humans. After Sosuke and the tadpole-like Ponyo are separated, the determined little sea creature breaks into father's magic goo and gains the ability to transform herself into a little girl, albeit one with fantastic powers of healing. Only Fujimoto and Ponyo's mother realize that she has upset the balance of nature, as soon becomes apparent when the moon draws near and raises the tides. As a severe storm threatens the coastline Ponyo rejoins Sosuke, to continue their adventures together.
Disarmingly simple and excitingly original, Ponyo is a triumph in every aspect. Hayao Miyazaki floors us by filling the screen with dancing, colorful underwater creatures The tiny Ponyo is initially little more than a tiny face with a dress-like red body. She's surrounded by hundreds of individually drawn "little sisters", who congregate like a school of minnows. Already an irrepressible spirit, Ponyo goes forth to see what the above-water world is like and becomes ensnared in a trawling net. Rescued by young Sosuke, she forms an immediate bond with him. For his part, Sosuke adores Ponyo, even when she squirts water in his face. When they meet again Ponyo has become a self-motivated evolutionary shape-shifter. Willing herself to change into a little girl, she sprouts chicken-like feet and a head more suitable for a frog. Ponyo presents a more nature-conscious, proactive variant on The Little Mermaid with an innocent heroine who plays with the biological status quo to get what she wants.
With its magical child heroine and its innocent boy hero, Ponyo intentionally overturns anime conventions. Miyazaki established his own animation company because he was tired of making cartoons about warrior boys with super powers. His Sosuke is an ordinary five year-old who accepts Ponyo's magic without question. When his new girlfriend makes his toy boat grow big enough for the two of them to ride in, Sosuke is immediately ready for adventure. Both characters are drawn in a style that evokes older anime conventions, yet with delicate, expressive facial expressions that make them instantly adorable. Excellent animation shows Ponyo delighting in her new legs as she hops exuberantly and hugs her human boyfriend. At that point, quite frankly, we just want reality to melt away, to allow this idyllic pair to play forever in an innocent paradise.
Ponyo presents conflict in a way that is honest about jeopardy without making the film threatening for small fry. The storm is represented by giant waves envisioned as living creatures with eyes, but the magical Ponyo is entirely at home with them. Sosuke's father and mother cope well with the fantastic weather, so no feelings of separation trauma arise. Rescue boat pilots salute Sosuke and Ponyo's little toy craft with official respect. The wild-haired Fujimoto predicts total calamity, but is contradicted and calmed by Ponyo's mother, who manifests herself as an enormous, placid sea creature with the head of a Norse princess. Informed that her tiny Brunhilde has put the Earth and Moon on a collision course, the sea goddess calmly expresses her pleasure at the cute name Ponyo.
In the final reckoning, the little sprout must decide if she wants to remain human or return to the sea. Ponyo teaches a fine lesson about the value of loving friendship -- not to mention promoting respect for nature. It also presents young viewers with a full spectrum of human conditions - what with the children's nursery and the old folks' home coexisting side-by-side.
A visual and aural delight from one end to the other, Ponyo is quite different from last year's wonderful UP, so much so that comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. There are plenty of cookie-cutter comedy CGI cartoons available these days -- "Cloudy with a Chance of Ice Age Penguin Gerbils" -- but also an impressive selection of animated movies with greater ambitions. Hayako Miyazaki's wonderful creations occupy a special place of honor.
Disney Home Video's Blu-ray presentation of Studio Ghibli's Ponyo is a Two-Disc Blu-ray + DVD Edition. The film's immaculate designs are a delight in the clarity of HD ... the screen can be packed with animated creatures but never seems clogged with visual overkill. The expressive landscapes have the wonderful look of original brush art. Computer animation can sometimes erase the basic joy of painted artworks that move, and Ponyo is simply a delight for the eyes.
This Disney disc has two soundtracks. The original Japanese version, audio plus picture, must be accessed through an interior menu. From a cold start the disc defaults to the excellent English language dub, which features voice work by Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey and Liam Neeson. The English option is so good that I recommend watching the film both ways before deciding which track you prefer.
The disc's extras are a series of brief interview vignettes. A short piece with the American producers gives just a peek at the English dubbing sessions. A separate bundle of official featurettes from the Ghibli studio allows the master animator Miyazaki and his producer Toshio Suzuki to explain their artistic aims from all angles. One longer piece is a TV excerpt that visits the location that inspired Miyazaki to write the Ponyo story - his company had previously spent a vacation there.
The special edition's separate DVD disc will attract consumers thinking of moving up to the new format, but who need a standard disc to watch the film right now. It can also come in handy should one want to show Ponyo at Granma's house. She'll love it too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ponyo Blu-ray + DVD rates:
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