The Night Out: Ponyo (2009), or Do A Voice Or Go Home

22 08 2009

Oh, anime. One of my most beloved art forms. It has the power to capture my imagination from start to finish, a feat not easily accomplished. Compared to American animation (what’s left of it, anyway), Japanese anime has so much to offer in terms of culture, innovation, and pure imagination. And forget about Inuyasha and Bleach when I’m talking about anime. I mean films and series’ that offer something more than trite cliches and banal anime teen action. Movies like Grave of the Fireflies, Paprika, and the ultimate anime movie Akira have something that American animators can learn from in terms of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Hayao Miyazaki is an anime director who knows how to innovate. His family-friendly features for Disney are among some of the best titles out there. Today’s feature is his latest work, Ponyo, or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. It’s geared towards the younger audiences, but fans of animation will marvel at seeing a hand-drawn feature back on the big-screen again. And while it’s not his best work, Miyazaki shows that he is a true visionary when it comes to making a world of his own.

It begins in the ocean near a tiny Japanese village. A strange man in a submarine is doing experiments in the water when his daughter, a tiny fish-like creature with a face, leaves the boat and finds herself floating to shore amidst some garbage. She finds the surface to be a fascinating place where she meets a human friend named Sosuke who picks her up and takes care of her after getting stuck in a piece of trash in the sea. They bond very, very quickly, and although Sosuke is five, and the fish-like creature is a fish-like creature, they really grow to care about one another. He names her Ponyo and promises to protect her forever. But shortly after that promise is made, Ponyo’s father comes to rescue her from the human. Sosuke is heartbroken, but Ponyo is downright infuriated! Through sheer power of will and some unnamed magic she possesses, she grows legs and arms like the humans and tries to go back. Her father imprisons her on the boat, but that only makes it worse. She goes on a rampage trying to escape, and eventually she does, but not before undoing the balance of nature by knocking over all of her father’s strange and exotic magical elixirs and giving the fish in the sea access to them. Everything goes haywire, and nature runs amok. Ponyo turns into a little girl with the magic from the elixirs, and her desire to be with Sosuke again causes a mini-typhoon! Will she reunite with her human friend, calm the rage of the sea, and put balance back to nature, or does her father have something else in store?

This is a very kid-friendly time to be had for all. This is as G-rated as you can get without it being a Baby Einsteins video. Everyone is drawn very soft and round, there’s little to nothing offensive or scary, and the message is pleasant and seriously uplifting. Everyone has a good time here, and it’s all done with some of the most beautiful animation I have ever seen. Miyazaki makes the strokes of a pencil look like a knife on cake icing; everything is so smooth and soft. No sharp edges for the toddlers to poke their eyes out with! It seems like the supreme work of a child. This is what a child imagines, but cannot create with his or her inadequate skill. Miyazaki seemingly translates that image ontot he screen, and it is simply breathtaking.

The story is somewhat derived from The Little Mermaid, but mostly derived from the magical, mystical Japanese mythos that Miyazaki has in his head. All of his movies seem to focus on the magic that happens in small, close-knit towns. There’s always about 50 people that live in a Miyazaki village, and they’re all either characters or extremely friendly passers-by. In Ponyo, there are a lot of characters, but mostly just generic friendly people who have names like Noriko, The Young Mother, and Karen, and they always have something cheerful and encouraging to say. It’s really not as derivative as that might sound. It’s a rather pleasant experience, and makes one forget the conveniences cities offer for a moment and makes one long for the simplicity of small-town life.

Everything about this movie is great; until it scampers into North America. Simple, stupid Americans don’t like to have subtitles in their movies for fear of having their brains catch on fire, so we had to have an English dub track. And Holy Mother of Fuck, is it awful! Almost every voice actor failed me in some way, and the reason for this is that the main cast is CELEBRITIES. Nobody here is a professional voice actor, which would have been nice, but rather someone with a recognizable name that they can put in big lights on the marquee so Americans will flock to it like zombies to a shopping mall.  We have Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah as Ponyo, who nearly surpasses her sister in the annoying department. Sosuke is played by Frankie Jonas, the Konas Brothers’ little brother. He was all right, but he didn’t bring anything to the equation that couldn’t have been added elsewhere without the ridiculous price tag a Jonas Brother would probably fetch. I don’t mean to rag on children, but these kids should not have been in this movie. They should have been at home, playing games or trying to live a normal life.

But they shouldn’t be singled out, because even trained pros had a hard time here. Liam Neeson totally jumps the shark (HA!) by giving his 50-something, grizzled European voice to a 30-something sea wizard with long red hair and what looks to be tattooed-on makeup. He doesn’t even try to do a different voice besides his own, and it seems unnatural for a voice like his to be coming out of this guy:

Julianne Moore is Ponyos father in Ponyo!

Julianne Moore IS Ponyo's father in Ponyo!

Tina Fey similarly un-acts as Sosuke’s mother. She doesn’t change one octave, one note. It’s like listening to a weird, weird episode of 30 Rock. Cate Blanchette is the ONLY person to do an accent or a different voice. And she only has like 7 lines! Kudos to her, boo to the rest of the adult cast, and a hearty GO TO YOUR ROOM for the children.

Ponyo is an amazing movie that takes me to places I’ve only dreamed of. It’s a journey that everyone should take, young or old. You might think anime is for the kids and under-developed teens, but you’ll find that, with Ponyo, anyone can enjoy it, and probably will. I found it to be one his most beautiful creations, and a thoroughly joyous film. It’s not very sophisticated or intelligent, but we needn’t be so erudite all the time to take pleasure from life’s simple bounties; imagination. I’d give it a 9 1/2, but the version I watched was marred by lazy celebrities, so I give the North American version of Ponyo 8 long-haired Irish dandies out of 10. Kampai!

Tomorrow is another mystery movie! I don’t know what I’ll see! Tell me what you’d like me to watch, and I’ll watch it. Until then!

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