Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review - Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)

Ponyo may not exist on the same level of complexity as Hayao Miyazaki's most acclaimed films, such as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but the more simple charms of this animated fable are still beguiling. The story is aimed directly at a younger audience, and by the climax it begins to betray a certain thinness, but the film is so imaginative and so beautifully made, it seems churlish to dwell on its flaws. Indeed, it's almost impossible to avoid being swept along by the graceful storytelling and gorgeous visuals, and to be captivated by this tale of a magical goldfish. That fish is called Brunhilde, and she's an odd little creature. The product of a relationship between a human who has turned his back on mankind to live under the sea and a mysterious sea goddess, she is a small fish with recognisable human features and a mop of red hair. Insatiably curious, she peers upwards, desperate to find out what goes on above the waves, and when her father is distracted she makes a break for the surface, landing herself in trouble almost immediately.

That trouble involves Brunhilde getting trapped in a glass bottle which has been carelessly tossed into the sea, marking Ponyo as another Miyazaki film in which environmental concerns are paramount. Brunhilde's father Fujimoto hates humankind's thoughtless pollution of the waves, but Brunhilde's first encounter with the race – when she is rescued by a boy named Susoke, who gives her the name Ponyo – is far more amenable; so much so, that she decides she wants to become human. Although I described Ponyo as a simple tale, I have to confess I didn't quite grasp why exactly Ponyo's desire to leave the life of a fish behind and become a little girl was so critical to throwing the balance of the world out of sync. All I know is, things go haywire when Ponyo does develop hands, feet and a taste for ham, with the ocean suddenly rising up to swamp the land surrounding it, and this is great news for the film, as it allows Miyazaki and his army of animators to pull of some dazzling effects.

The ocean is a perfect stage for Miyazaki, allowing him to bring a wonderful array of creatures to spectacular life. Not only that, he even makes the sea itself into something of a living entity – watch the way the waves climb over each other to crash against the rocks – and the great flood that occurs halfway through Ponyo enables some strange and memorable sights, such as fish calmly gliding along on roads that used to be populated by cars. The English-language version of Ponyo that I saw has been overseen by John Lasseter's team at Disney, and the result is far more pleasing than dubbed versions of foreign films usually are. Liam Neeson's gravelly tones are perfect for Fujimoto, while Tina Fey brings wit and warmth to her role as Susoke's mother. There's no doubt that Ponyo begins to run out of steam slightly as it heads into its final act, and the climax is rather abrupt, but the film still maintains an infectious sense of fun, and a ceaseless invention that is nigh-on irresistible.