Today I was fortunate enough to catch Ponyo.
Hayao Miyazaki is a bit of an oddity in the animation world. He is generally considered to be a grand master of 2D animation, and his films have won a powerful audience in the West far beyond the reaches of the anime community. Significantly, his films are as popular in Japan as they are in the rest of the world. That is because the Japanese culture he inserts into his films is not oesoteric. The strength of his films is in their universally engaging storytelling.
Ponyo is a film that, while not narratively sophisticated, is completely adorable. Some of the plot points can easily be predicted, and others we have seen a thousand times before, but the whole production is imbued with the charm Hayao and Studio Ghibli are now synonymous with. It's like Disney Magic, only fresher. You would need to have a heart of stone not to find something cute in every scene of the movie. The characters are vibrant and the setting is nothing short of breathtaking. Hayao is reputed for his wild imagination, and indeed, this film shows that he is still able to find that part of himself that is as young and innocent as the film's protagonists.
The story is very simple. In fact, this may be its only weakness. I believe it could have been taken further - the setting and "rules" of this world were stunningly open ended and remain somewhat underexploited. One thing that genuinely bothered me about the film is the fact that it is essentially an 'idiot plot'. There is a certain amount of license in family and children's movies to have characters open-minded enough to accept something totally beyond reality, but in this film some pretty bizarre things happen and children and full-grown adults alike treat it as completely normal - in some cases, uninteresting. The protagonist's mother, in particular, seems oblivious to the fact that her entire town is experiencing supernatural events. It's like she's on autopilot, and this strange inability to sense something out of the ordinary is shared by many of the cast. For some reason this really got to me and it persisted for the whole film.
The ending was also a bit of a cop-out; there was a lot of build up and mounting tension to what was a very Disney-esque paint-by-numbers resolution that I think Hayao Miyazaki and the studio commands are well beyond at this point.
But as we all know, no one ever tries when it comes to the endings of kids' films, no matter what country they are from.
Apart from that, my only other complaint was that in many scenes involving Ponyo's father, there is a massive amount of exposition (including the old Scriptwriter's Sin of characters talking to themselves to bring the audience up to speed). This stuff can be cut painlessly, the world is interesting enough without having everything explained to us. That, or it could be done far more succinctly or believably.
The animation is predictably stunning. There is a certain quality to the movement of this film that seems smoother and more complete than most Japanese animation, even including Studio Ghibli's previous works, and combined with the film's fantastically illustrated backgrounds, creates a very "complete" look that hits hard and keeps you engaged. From the subtlety of the very human acting to the fantastical shapeshifting of the sea and the creatures that inhabit it, the spectrum of animation quality has been met to the highest standard. By far my favourite scene is the opening sequence, an absolute myriad of sea creatures surrounding a mysterious underwater magician which turns out to be Ponyo's father.
Overall, I would recommend this film to anyone who wants a cosy, cuddly and superbly animated venture into a unique 2D world.
Hayao Miyazaki has been going in and out of retirement like a revolving door lately, but I definitely hope his subsequent films are at least this good.
Should be interesting to compare this to Princess and the Frog which I will be seeing on Tuesday.