- Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
- Starring: the voices of Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett
- Classification: G
Those only vaguely familiar with Japanese anime undoubtedly think of giant robots, big-eyed ninjas and Pokemon characters. While they certainly do constitute large and commercially successful chunks of the industry, there's more to Japanese animation. In fact, one of its primary influences, dating back to the 1930s, was the groundbreaking work of Walt Disney, who, to the best of my memory, never actually used ninjas to harass Donald Duck.
Which brings us to the work of noted director Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki has often been referred to as the "Japanese Walt Disney" and is one of the most successful and celebrated filmmakers in Japan. Among his best-known works internationally are 1997's Princess Mononoke , 2001's Spirited Away and the mesmerizing 2004 release Howl's Moving Castle . It's worth noting that Princess Mononoke was Japan's highest-grossing film ever until it was eclipsed by Titanic , and Spirited Away was the first anime film to win an Academy Award. In Japan, Miyazaki is a Very Big Deal, if not quite a household name in the West.
His latest film, Ponyo (or Ponyo On the Cliff By The Sea , to use its full Japanese title), was equally successful on its Japanese release last year - winning the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year and grossing more than $160-million domestically - and is seeing its North American release today. Hard-core anime fans will rejoice. For the rest of us, this will come off as just another in a long line of kid-friendly summertime fillers.
Influenced in equal part by Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , the somewhat convoluted storyline centres on Ponyo (voiced for American release by Miley Cyrus's little sister, Noah), a girlie-fish who winds up beached and bottled on the shore. There she is found and rescued by a five-year-old boy named Sosuke (rocking Jonas Brothers sibling Frankie Jonas).
When Ponyo's father, Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson and visualized as Neptune as played by the lead singer of a seventies British rock band), orders the Wave Spirits to bring Ponyo home, Sosuke is crushed. Ponyo, who is falling in love with Sosuke, uses magic to transform into a human, thereby throwing the natural world into a state of imbalance. Will Ponyo somehow remain in human form? Will she and Sosuke live happily ever after? Will Nature's balance be restored before the moon crashes into the Earth? Will your six-year-old have the slightest idea of what is going on?
Suffice it to say that Ponyo's fate differs significantly from that of the Little Mermaid and that Ponyo does not end up as a bucket of foaming sea water.
Of course, you don't do $160-million worth of business solely by targeting the ankle-biter set, and Miyazaki's works certainly appeal to an adult audience, at least in Japan. The animation (most of it apparently done by Miyazaki himself) has a clean, uncluttered look, with sharp line drawings and solid swatches of vibrant primary colours and pastels. Paradoxically, his backgrounds tend to be filled with realistic detail, almost photographic at times, which gives the surreal effect of animated characters existing in a real world. Each frame seems a work of art, thereby justifying the Disney comparisons.
Ponyo is a throwback film in a couple of distinct ways. For one, it returns Miyazaki to the earlier films of his career, simpler tales such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service , more kids' films than message films. His themes here are as simple and transparent as the jellyfish that transport Ponyo to the ocean's surface - pollution is bad, love has redemptive powers and strong family ties are crucial.
Second, because it is Miyazaki, the overall feel is more classic Disney-style animation than modern-day Pixar stuff. The movie feels gloriously hand-drawn, not computer-generated.
In short, it's very much a charming kids' film, created by a master of animation. But as it's decidedly not Wall·E or Shrek or even Up , chances are it will appeal to only the youngest of audiences. A reminder that Big In Japan does not necessarily translate all that well all the time.
Special To The Globe and Mail