Friday, December 7, 2012

Disney Trades The Music And Style Of The Little Mermaid For Substance And Sophisticated Themes With Ponyo!

The Good: Voice acting, Characters, Environmental themes, Sense of whimsy and fantasy
The Bad: Animation style is a bit erratic.
The Basics: In the Studio Ghibli film Ponyo, Disney remakes The Little Mermaid with a greater sense of menace and magic, but without the distinctive music.

I am not ashamed to admit that children’s animated films have a much, much harder time with me than adult films. While I can respect the creativity and style of many animated movies, I usually an unimpressed by how predictable children’s movies are and, more importantly, not wowed by how they talk down to children. I guess I’m of the school that children will learn faster by being presented with complex ideas, situations, and language when paired with adults who are patient enough to answer the questions they have, as opposed to creating works that are written-down to children and do not challenge them. My point here is that it is exceptionally rare for me to rate an animated movie for children very high, especially as high as I am Ponyo.

Ponyo is the Studio Ghibli-created, Disney-distributed version of The Little Mermaid (reviewed here!). The classic myth is retold in (fairly) modern Japan with a sense of wonder and magic that blends with science and modern technology. For my money, Ponyo is a delightful surprise that is sufficiently sophisticated to engage viewers from childhood well into adulthood.

Under the sea, a scientist observes and feeds all manner of sea creatures. There, he witnesses a tiny being that looks like a fish with a human head. One of these mysterious creatures leaves its family and rides a jellyfish to land where she sees the child, Sosuke. In evading a boat, the little creature ends up trapped in a glass bottle, from which Sosuke – who identifies her as a goldfish – rescues her. The sea itself and the scientist – who claims the fishgirl is his daughter – attempt to stop Sosuke from removing her from the sea, but Sosuke puts her in water and nurses her back to health. Sosuke names her Ponyo, feeds her ham, and protects her (in her bucket) while he goes to school.

After vowing to protect Ponyo, Sosuke loses the goldfish with the human face to the Scientist and the sea. Trying to console his mother when his father has to take additional work on the sea, Sosuke feels responsible for the loss of Ponyo. Under the sea, Ponyo rebels against the scientist, refusing to eat the food he provides and demanding he call her by her new name, Ponyo. While she uses her willpower to transform, the scientist forces her to revert. But Ponyo’s desire to be human and love Sosuke is strong and Sosuke’s desire to be reunited is equally great and through tsunami, the machinations of the scientist and sheer force of will, the two work to return to one another. Once they are reunited, Ponyo learns about life above the sea and uses her magic to make Sosuke happy, not knowing the price her magic might come with.

The story is by no means an original one, though the desires of Ponyo to be human and live on land with Sosuke feels fresh in this incarnation as Ponyo takes time to both create a realistic childlike sense of wonder (“Ham!”) and a sense of realism for the shock a seadweller would have suddenly acclimating to land (Ponyo’s curiosity at the act of preparing ramen noodles is delightfully rendered). Also blended well into Ponyo is a strong environmental message and a subtle anti-capitalist one. The scientist, Fujimoto, is deeply concerned with maintaining the natural balance of the environment under the sea and in virtually every shot of the sea near land, pollution may be seen. The subplot involving Koichi, Sosuke’s father, is a subtle indictment of capitalism and how servicing the economy puts good people in outrageously dangerous situations and has the potential to cause more destruction than good.

One of the resounding themes in Ponyo is the importance of taking responsibility – with Sosuke quickly taking responsibility for Ponyo’s fate. Oddly, there are no significant consequences for Fujimoto when he spills his elixirs into the ocean, but that is comparatively minor in the overall story.

The vocal performances in Ponyo are excellent. Utilizing the talents of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchette, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Matt Damon, along with younger talents like Noah Lindsey Cyrus (Ponyo) and Frankie Jonas (Sosuke), Ponyo’s characters are emotive in appropriately real ways. Cyrus infuses enthusiasm and love into almost all of Ponyo’s lines and Jonas portrays Sosuke equally well. They make the characters very easy to empathize with and believe in the magical properties of.

The animation of Ponyo is consistent in its color richness, but erratic in the level of detail, especially on the character. The detailing differences are somewhat ironic considering how consistently detailed the fish and sea creatures are all along. Still, Ponyo is visually pleasing for the most part.

On DVD, Ponyo comes with an entire second disc of bonus features. The featurettes on the making of Ponyo are interesting and worth checking out. Ponyo succeeds because it does not talk down to children (describing how eating soup and sandwiches helps a new mother make milk for the baby is something lacking from American children’s movies!) and it tells an engaging story surprisingly well, making it very easy to recommend.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Wreck-It Ralph
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Princess And The Frog
The Incredibles
Lilo & Stitch
Monsters, Inc.
The Lion King
Lady And The Tramp
The Sword In The Stone
Sleeping Beauty


For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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