- Rated G
- Buy the BD
All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
y the time Pixar arrived on the scene in 1995 with their first CGI animated feature, Walt Disney had all but abandoned the conventional hand-drawn style. There were still a few more traditionally-animated films released before the start of the new millennium (like “Mulan” and “Tarzan”), but most of those were already in development before Disney’s soon-to-be collaborators changed the industry forever. That doesn’t mean everyone followed suit, however, and although most animation companies have since transitioned over to CGI, legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki continues to crank out traditional animated films for the world to see. His latest, “Ponyo,” is more kid-friendly than past imports like “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl's Moving Castle,” but it’s just as visually stunning and offers a nice twist on a classic tale.
The story centers on Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a surprisingly mature five-year-old boy who rescues a goldfish on his way to school one day and names it Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). Unbeknownst to him, Ponyo is actually the daughter of the king of the ocean, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), who is so worried that she’ll be corrupted by humans that he orders her back home and locks her away in a bubble. Having already experienced the joys of human life, however, Ponyo uses her newfound magical powers to transform into a little girl and return to live with Sosuke and his mother (Tina Fey) in their mountain home. But when the transformation results in a massive storm that submerges the entire town underwater, Sosuke must prove his love for Ponyo so that she may remain in her human form and the balance of nature is reset.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the story before. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” “Ponyo” reimagines the classic fairy tale as a charming little film about the joys of childhood. Though it’s hard to see many of Miyazaki’s adult admirers enjoying it as much as undisputed favorites like “Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro” or “Spirited Away,” there’s still a lot to love about the movie – namely the character of Ponyo, who’s so freaking cute that you’ll swear she’s the long-lost sister of the Powerpuff Girls. Hopping around like she’s just downed a four-pack of Red Bull, Ponyo's human self injects so much energy into the second act that you’ll forgive some of the more questionable subplots – like the fact that Sosuke’s mother leaves her five-year-old son alone during a dangerous tropical storm.
Of course, it’s moments like these where Miyazaki gets to treat the audience to some splendid animation, because while the designs for the characters themselves are pretty simple, the sweeping sequences that they get caught up in (Ponyo’s initial escape from her ocean home, Sosuke’s mother outdriving a typhoon) will leave you breathless. Joe Hisaishi, who’s responsible for one of my all-time favorite cinematic scores (Takeshi Kitano’s “Kikujiro"), does a fantastic job with the accompanying music, as it only makes the eye-popping visuals even more stunning. Regrettably, the film does run a little long, and some of the casting choices are a bit bizarre (Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, for instance, only have a handful of lines), but for a supposedly dead medium, “Ponyo” will sure make you long for the days of hand-drawn animation.
Two-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The old idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” couldn’t be any truer with the two-disc release of “Ponyo.” Though it may not look like much at first, the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack actually has a solid collection of bonus material highlighted by an eight-part featurette called “Behind the Studio.” Featuring interviews by director Hayao Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, each section covers a different element of production, from the origins of the story and the real-world locations that inspired it, to scoring the film and dubbing the U.S version with Hollywood voice talent. There’s also a cool interactive guide to the world of “Ponyo” and Miyazaki’s other classic films, as well as the option to view the original storyboards in picture-in-picture along with the movie.