Friday, August 21, 2009

"Ponyo" Review - For once, Hayao Miyazaki stumbles

I love every thing I've seen from Hayao Miyazaki. So I'm sad to say that his latest film, "Ponyo," was disappointing. In short, it was made for young children, and my enjoyment of Studio Ghibli's effort was killed by expectations and age.

"Ponyo" begins underwater. We see an astounding array of sea life, tended by a man who must have magical powers. One little creature with a fish body and a sorta-human face is a bit too inquisitive. It sneaks out and is dragged off by a current, drawn to the beach. It's cute as all get-out.

A young boy living by a cliff sees it when it's gotten in trouble and saves it. After this, strange things begin to happen - the growing creature makes home life entertaining, but the waters outside seem troubled. Childlike wonder and roaring tides follow. Also, insane weather phenomena.

Were I young enough to like it, my wholelife would be ahead of me 

I actually saw this a while ago (thank you, Asian Bootleg Industry!), I just didn't want to ruin it for others. Miyazaki has made many masterpieces, but this can't be one of them. "My Neighbor Totoro" was also created for youngsters, yet was much more accessible.

I loved Hayao's films so much that I went into "Ponyo" knowing nothing about it. I only needed to know that he made it. And while "Ponyo" is pretty and heart-warming, it's also very flawed. The problem begin in what the movie doesn't delve into.

For starters, I didn't know that this picture is a take on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." Perhaps that hurt me since so much in the movie is unexplained. The dialog is "spare" at best - I honestly had no idea what the conflict was for an hour.

I also felt that I learned little about the small cast. My adult mind requires more information about the plot and the characters. Even the engaging introduction is unclear: Beautiful, brilliant marine life swims by majestically - it's gorgeous - but we never find out what they are or why they're there.

To give credit where it's due, the AV Club's review (they gave it an "A-") nailed the biggest issue that I had, even as I watched this flick: it's near-total lack of urgency or danger. This is true even when the film makes a big mistakes by raising its stakes to ridiculously high levels - without the thematic background to really justify it.

Miyazaki's last three films urgency, intelligible plots, and deep parts. They had those things in spades; the peril in each fed the stories, actually. Then again, those tales weren't for young children.

For my part, "Ponyo" is a possible kid's movie to show my nephews when they're four or so. I can take subversive pleasure in showing them a foreign film. I might have to tune out when I do though - Taken together, the minimal story-telling and laid-back sensibility just killed the experience for me.

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