The Mouse is a hungry beast. It swallows up massive companies like little hunks of swiss cheese. Few of these deals garner respect from film fans but, a few years back, one that did just that came along. It was the deal that made Walt Disney the exclusive distributor of Studio Ghibli films in the United States. Even for Disney's biggest detractors, it was quite a match; Ghibli has been called the Disney of Japan for quite some time. I suppose, then, it was only a matter of time before Ghibli's obvious superiority over Disney made for some irony.
The work of the reigning god of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki, "Ponyo" is a deeply flawed film. Yet, despite its shortcomings, it illustrates the astonishing talent of the man and his studio. Where the plot is strange and underdeveloped, the animation is astonishingly vibrant. Where the characters are occasionally difficult to grasp, the film's tone is clear and resonant. It may not be a shoo-in for next year's Oscars, but "Ponyo" takes an oft-adapted story and uses it to create an incredible visual experience. It is something that Disney proper has not managed to do consistently in about seventy years, but Ghibli does today on a regular basis.
Sosuke is a pretty precocious five year old. He needs to be; his mom, Lisa, generally has her head in the clouds. Whether it is ranting about ecological issues, rushing to her job or pining for her absentee husband, she only finds time for occasional bursts of parenting. One could say that Ponyo is in a slightly different situation. Her father is extremely protective. She is also a goldfish. Ponyo is the daughter of a wizard, Fujimoto, and a spirit called the Great Sea Mother. One day, Ponyo escapes from her father's submarine and travels to shore. There, she encounters and befriends Sosuke. He takes her ashore in a bucket. This throws nature horribly out of balance.
If that last leap threw you, one cannot blame you. Many of the ideas in "Ponyo" are glazed over in much the same way. There are themes of ecology, friendship, acceptance and other things, but they develop irrationally. To be blunt: The script is quite weak. I still think, however, it is better than that of "The Little Mermaid" in some ways. (That is the other film based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.) Lisa's lame parenting, if a bit muddled, still adds some complexity to the film's first two acts. Similarly, Fujimoto hates the humans for what they do to the ocean, but is hardly a bad guy. Miyazaki has never been interested in one-dimensional writing and, while this script does not do much with its ideas... at least it has some. "The Little Mermaid" had nothing more than a tired, star-crossed love story and it made that look difficult to render. People may roll their eyes when I ask for some decent ideas in a kids' movie, but I firmly believe that no movie has to be brainless, or ever should be.
Kids, after all, are not idiots. One just has to speak their language to know this, and Miyazaki is fluent. "Ponyo," to be honest, does not need a great plot to succeed because its visuals communicate so much. Every corner of every frame is bursting with life. Even the smallest character is instantly replete with charm and personality. These qualities are never affected through excess speech or inane song. I will always wonder at films that wish to shove lines and lines of dialogue down the throats of a demographic that is still learning to speak. Children understand visuals far better than words. Picasso knew it and he envied it. Today, American animators almost invariably forget it.
The visuals in "Ponyo" seem to have sprung from the mind of a child. Colors are bright and forms are expressive. The film, nevertheless, is full of detail and Miyazaki's incredible ability to use lighting, measured motion and breathtaking background art to create an unparalleled sense of place is in full swing. The simplicity of the visuals are borne of supreme talent, not a lack of money. Ghibli films generally have less than a quarter of the budget of Disney films, but limitation breeds creativity; framerates may be low at times but Miyazaki knows how to harness the power of motion like no one else. When characters soar in one of his films, the effect is profoundly moving.
Moments such as Ponyo's wave-borne pursuit of Sosuke or the calm aftermath of a storm have such emotional texture to them and, especially in light of the script's weaknesses, it can all be attributed to the animation. It is difficult to say the same about any recent Disney films. The storm sequence in "The Little Mermaid" shows undeniable technical ability (read: money) but only the most superficial artistic merit (read: it was a bit scary). In much the same way, Disney's characters may vibrate with a full, twenty-four frames of animation per second but, without any soul to back it up, it imbues them with a creepy and artificial aura.
For all of the showing up being done at Disney's expense, however, the company has (as per their contract) treated Ghibli's films with the utmost respect. "Ponyo," like its predecessors, has enjoyed a very wide distribution for an anime, as well as a top-tier American voice cast. The American trailer may draw laughter for all of its stunt casting, but this cast does its job well. Frankie Jonas slips into the role of Sosuke seamlessly, as does Noah Cyrus for her few lines as Ponyo. Tina Fey is a bit shakier as Lisa. She plays the role of a mother better than one would think, based on her past roles, but she hits a few false notes here and there. Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett step up to make Ponyo's parents sound Mythical and British without trying too hard. A number of other notable actors round out the ancillary cast with solid work, as well.
The English script is probably the shakiest of Disney's Ghibli translations that I have heard. I suspect that some of the script's lapses in logic only came about in translation. It is, however, hard to say. It is not saying much, either, as Disney's previous work in this area has been quite good. ("Princess Mononoke" remains the best in my mind, even with Billy Bob Thornton playing such a prominent role.)
"Ponyo" is not Miyazaki's best – not by a long shot. "Spirited Away" is far more moving and surreal. "Princess Mononoke" sports far more grandeur and tension. "My Neighbor Totoro" remains the most tender fairy tale in recent film history. Yet, "Ponyo" is not a failure. Its world is immersive, its characters deep, its ideas real and its animation that of a virtuoso. Furthermore, its faults may be greater than those of the film that last adapted this story, but so are its successes. "Ponyo" is proof that Disney has not been the source of Disney magic for quite some time now, even if it has licensed it for distribution in some territories.