Ponyo is the newest Studio Ghibli movie to come to DVD in the U.S. Thanks to Ed’s laptop, I was able to sample this in Blu-ray. (Although we had a bit of trouble getting the thing to talk to my television. I thought it would be as simple as plugging in the cable to the HDMI port, but it seems that you have to disable the laptop screen to get the TV image to show; otherwise, the software gives you “does not support protected content” messages. Piracy would have been faster and simpler. Pardon my digression.)
Ponyo is writer/director Hayao Miyazaki’s take on the Little Mermaid story. The title character, voiced by Miley’s sister Noah Cyrus, is a a plump goldfish (although I think of her as more like a koi, those ornamental carp), the daughter of an underwater magician (Liam Neeson) and an ocean goddess. She falls asleep in a jellyfish bubble that gives her her first glimpse of the human world and the boy Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger brother of those Jonases), who lives in a seaside fishing village. She becomes trapped in a glass jar when a huge boat stirs up all kinds of trash from the bottom, and Sosuke frees her, beginning their friendship.
It’s a charming fable — every kid dreams of a magical pet friend — with an obvious but still potent message against pollution and for imagination and wonder. Ponyo’s quest to be human (which makes her look, at first, like a cross between a frog and chicken) and reunite with her friend ends up setting loose too much magic, which threatens to cause a tsunami and drown the village. I’m glad I was watching this with Ed, who’d seen this before, because he could answer my questions like “if she’s a fish, why is her dad a human?” and “who’s her mother then?” If I’d been more patient, the film would have explained some of this.
The underwater introduction is cutely creepy, but it took me a while to get used to the human-headed fish. Then she started talking, which made me go through the cycle all over again. And her little sisters were strange in their group-ness, as though a swarm of ants turned into fish. I’m okay, though, with some things about the undersea world seeming alien. The “silent” storytelling at the beginning, like the openings of Wall-E or Up, is a startlingly impressive sequence with only music and sound effects to introduce viewers to the world of Ponyo. You must subsume yourself to it for the fantasy to work.
Overall, I was most astounded by the colors, pastels but also stunning brights. The animation is masterful, as expected, with all the sea and the waves and Ponyo running on them (accompanied by Wagnerian music, of all things, but it does capture the power of water). It’s so well-done you don’t notice how much work it must have taken until you stop and think about it. The kids move like children do, awkward and energetic and determined and uncertain. Some of their behavior reminds me of Peanuts, while Ponyo’s sisters look at times like Popeye‘s Sweepea. I like the interplay of the generations, as Sosuke talks with inhabitants of the nursing home (Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman) where his mother (Tina Fey) works.
Although I have some qualms about celebrity voice casting, Tina Fey’s vocal portrayal in this is excellent. She does a good job of exasperated, as a woman whose husband isn’t home enough (he’s out at sea, captaining a ship) who has to take care of a crazy kid and his runaway friend. Their daily life is fascinating, with shortwave radio to contact dad and a generator for when the power goes out and a signal light on their balcony to communicate with the ship with flashes.
There’s a lot of slightly scary suspense in this film, as when dad sends these wave/whale dark monster things to recapture his daughter. Both parents, Ponyo’s and Sosuke’s, think they know the right thing for their kids, wanting to keep them innocent and protected. Sosuke’s mom is right when she says that Ponyo’s a fish and she’s not meant to live in a bucket, but magic can fix that. The two kids just want to be friends. And Ponyo wants ham.
The story seems younger-skewing than Miyazaki’s other films, more suitable for six-year-olds than teens, but it was a fine film, with lots of neat visuals. It made for a lovely Sunday afternoon viewing. In terms of extras, there’s an introduction to the film in which Disney producers praise Miyazaki, and then two more categories: “Behind the Studio” (for the animation enthusiast), which has all the background information on story, characters, score, and voices, including Miyazaki interviews and shots of voice recording, and “Enter the Lands” (for the kids), interactive quizzes and such on the various Ghibli films. (The studio provided a review copy.)
I know long-time readers are curious as to what I thought of the Blu-ray experience. I hadn’t seen the film before, so I couldn’t directly compare, but it did seem bright and beautiful, with a good feeling of depth. Not 3-D, but not flat either. I don’t feel compelled to upgrade, but I can see why those particularly interested in the most superior visual experience promote the format.