The premiere of a new movie from Studio Ghibli is always an event over here at film, eyeballs, brain, and if it’s by Hayao Miyazaki, I line up for over an hour to catch it on the big screen. (I must say I was a little disappointed in Berkeley — there were literally two other people in line, whereas there were about 30 people ahead of me to see Park’s Thirst 90 minutes before the opening. This is Miyazaki, people! The line to see Spirited Away at the Castro a few years ago was probably twice as long!)
Miyazaki’s utterly charming new film, Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo, or, literally, Ponyo on the Cliff), is gorgeous and bewildering, its logic operating in a universe that’s both familiar and fairytale-ancient. But it’s never far from what makes Miyazaki’s films particularly special: capturing, with a shivery accuracy, a childlike sense of wonder.
In contrast to his last two or three films, Miyazaki doesn’t have a grander, more adult message waiting in the wings in Ponyo, though an injunction to save the oceans is implicit in the beginning and end. Here, its ambitions are deliberately small, even if something near-apocalyptic does happen: the film centers on the love of a five-year old boy named Sosuke for a fish he’s named Ponyo (and vice-versa).
But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She’s the offspring (the eldest of many wriggly candy-corn-shaped siblings) of Fujimoto, an “evil wizard” (Ponyo’s words) and Granmamare, the Queen of the Sea herself, who, upon tasting human blood (don’t worry, it’s not a vampire thing; she just licks a cut on Sosuke’s finger) wants to become human and live with the boy she loves. It’s a twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid tale, for sure, but with its wide-eyed innocence, Ponyo may be the closest thing to unconditional love that we’ll see in the movies this year. (EDIT: see more about this true love in Barb’s Ponyo review at her blog.
Which perhaps explains — but not justifies — Disney’s lack of faith in marketing this fish tale. (Not to mention a lack of faith in the Berkeley audience, though I probably wouldn’t trust them either; the Disney cops, equipped with night-vision goggles to spot potential torrenters, were stationed at all sides of the auditorium.) Note, for instance, the spectacularly misleading trailer for Ponyo, including the Finding Nemo font of its title; the snippet of dialogue you hear, delivered by Liam Neeson, is, I’d swear, actually addressed to someone else. (The tsunami sequence prominently seen in the trailer is indeed amazing, but Miyazaki similarly excels in portraying the rhythms of daily life: shopping, driving, cooking, playing in a tidepool. But I guess they couldn’t market this as “Everything G-Force Isn’t”.)
The trailer is revealing, nonetheless, because it tries to align the film with Miyazaki’s other works like Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) and their “girl heroics”, which Ponyo certainly isn’t. (If anything, the most “heroic”, if foolhardy, act in the film is accomplished by Lisa, Sosuke’s mother, who drives along a winding cliffside road as the waves rage behind her.) Unlike the titular young witch in the underrated Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Ponyo possesses powers (in this case, almost literally earthshaking) that she doesn’t quite understand or know how to control. She’s “only a child”, after all, as is Sosuke, and it’s a testament to Miyazaki’s genius that the adult audience is solidly in line with their characters.
Yes, the fate of the planet is at stake, but the interesting thing is that this information is actually concealed from our child protagonists until close to the end. Ponyo and Sosuke’s little voyage of discovery, therefore, isn’t artificially fraught with peril, and what this allows Miyazaki to do is to fully sustain that childlike wonder for a good amount of the film. And really, what isn’t there to marvel at here? Miyazaki practically renders you slackjawed at the psychedelic visuals in front of you: schools of fish of molten gold, churning blue hills of angry ocean waves, prehistoric sea creatures swimming along highway railings, silvery flotillas of jellyfish.
Most importantly, this sense of magic carries over to the ordinary things. The vivid water-colored backgrounds alone, filled with gorgeous detail — their house on a cliff by the sea, Fujimori’s underwater laboratory, the seaside fishing village — are worth the price of admission. There’s a scene, for example, where Ponyo rejoices in a restorative bowl of steaming ramen — Sosuke’s mother, Lisa, makes Ponyo close her eyes first, in delicious anticipation — and we in the audience can’t help but feel the same when she cries in delight upon seeing the slabs of ham (her favorite) in the soup. “Life is mysterious and amazing,” Lisa tells the kids, but we have work to do: get out of our wet clothes, have something warm to drink, and prepare the table for dinner. In Ponyo, it’s all still magic nonetheless.
In this respect, Ponyo is closest in tone to Miyazaki’s moving and sublime My Neighbor Totoro, his 1988 film about two girls and their friendship with a forest spirit. In that movie, children, once they grow up, lose their ability to see the Totoro and its magic, and I, for one, am absolutely grateful that Miyazaki never did.
(A note on the dubbing: upon hearing about the Berkeley sneak preview — inaccurate, actually, because it was in conjunction with Miyazaki’s receiving of the 2009 Berkeley Japan Prize from the Center for Japanese Studies — my first question was whether it was subtitled or dubbed. It turned out to be dubbed, with a little Cyrus sister and a little Jonas brother thrown into the mix, which worried me to no end. No doubt I’m not the only one still a little traumatized by Billy Bob Thornton’s voice turn in Princess Mononoke. I’m happy to report, in any case, that the English dubbing is quite fine; the only obvious extra-cinematic reference here — it’s the main disease afflicting celebrity voices — is that of Cate Blanchett voicing the Granmamare in full-on Galadriel mode. But I’ll forgive Cate anything.)