Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Miyazaki, 2009)
Miyazaki is a director and an animator who I tend to have an off and on relationship with in regard to how much praise he has rightfully garnered over the years. Now I am not going to claim to be an expert on Miyazaki, I have seen about six of his films but have yet to see Mononoke or Nausicaä, but I do believe that I have a decent enough grasp on what I have seen to say he is a very talented animator and filmmaker, but certainly not one of the best currently making films. Much like Pixar, the love for Studio Ghibli, and more specifically Miyazaki himself, strikes me as irrational and far too over the top. Unlike his American counter part, Miyazaki does make, usually, decent to good films and not the mediocre product that Pixar pushes out, but it is not like Miyazaki is Satoshi Kon or anything.
Either way, I went into Ponyo with very little knowledge about the film but also cautiously optimistic that I was about to bear witness to something great. After about a minute or so of watching numerous aquatic creatures swim around an oceanic area, reminding me of Nemo a little bit I guess, I was pretty sure that I had become swept up in the world that Miyazaki was putting on display. The animation, despite appearing fairly mundane on the surface, is absolutely stunning when in motion and the way that Miyazaki handles the water and the aquatic life in the film is nearly unrivaled in terms of technical quality. Top to bottom the film is mostly gorgeous, though I was never too much on the animation of Sosuke, but the way Ponyo is handled makes up for that complaint. Not surprisingly, when the world becomes surreal everything is turned up a notch and the film transforms into something beautiful. Combined with all the details that are put in the world the film certainly succeeds an animated picture in many ways that American films have simply lost over the years as CGI became common place.
All of the voice acting is really good and the person playing Ponyo brought such a sense of wonder to the character that the character became instantly believable. However, the two surprising performances come from Lisa, Sosuke's mother, and Fujimoto. Lisa is such a well developed character, having all the traits of a loving mother mixed in with a fiery rage that makes each time she is on screen an absolute delight. Her relationship with her son is handled nicely, but the strength is found in the way Miyazaki frames her as the family's anchor. On the other hand, Fujimoto is reserved enough to give off the slightly evil feeling without being laughably bad or overly soft. He's a pretty complex character who changes a decent amount during the story, but he never abandons all the qualities that make for a good villain. He's a menacing force, but Miyazaki also has more going on under the surface with him, and the voice actor portrays this beautifully.
Speaking of beautiful things in the film, of which there are several, the action scenes are a thrilling ride that far surpass any action set pieces throughout the year thus far. There is one chase sequence that proves to be incredibly riveting while also being touching at the same time, and all without abandoning any of the tension that such a scene demands. The way the shots are all framed during this sequence help enhance the film as well, keeping the action squarely focused on the screen and never letting thing mesh together or losing the audience during the film's faster parts. Of course all the slower parts are shot masterfully too, and the film does showcase Miyazaki's prowess as a director. Visually the film is stunning, but not simply due to the animation, the technical craft on display in Ponyo is top quality film making no matter how things are sliced.
I must now take time to pause from my gushing and begin wrapping things up with the complaints I have about the film. For a film that deals with such a cataclysmic event, I shall not spoil what said event is, the film lacks a distinct sense of dread. Perhaps the reason for this is to better highlight the relationship between Ponyo and Sosuke, but if that is the case then there had to be a better way of getting the two of them to the script's end without tossing in some underdeveloped conflict that really ups the films stakes incredibly.
On top of that, there are a few parts that seem to drag. Sure they are pretty to look at, but they never feel like they are driving toward anything, just nice little breaks in the plot that are needed to be there because advancing from point A to point B with a cut would leave things far too short. The film works spectacularly in building relationships and when all of the film's themes are fleshed out completely, but the narrative just feels tacked on and I do think that the film would have been a good deal stronger if it had not rushed the plot and just expanded its run time by twenty minutes.
Still, my time with Ponyo was incredibly enjoyable and I would call it my third favorite Miyazaki film behind Totoro at the two spot and Porco Rosso on top. Actually, I was not incredibly surprised to find out after watching that others had made the same connection that I did: the film feels a lot like My Neighbor Totoro. While I could go into a few of the major similarities between the films, I feel that I have done a good job keeping this review just about spoiler free and drawing specific comparisons would begin to give away too many plot elements. Probably best to just wrap things up.
Miyazaki is a master when it comes to expressing and idea on film and Ponyo is no exception. He handles all of the themes with the care of the best novelist; however, Miyazaki overlooks simple narrative decisions that ultimately hold the film back from being a masterpiece. Ponyo is, for me, tier two Miyazaki, sitting side by side with Howl's Moving Castle in an area that is a step below masterworks like Totoro and Porco, but a noticeable cut above a film like Spirited Away. I look forward to seeing this on the big screen when it hits American cinemas, plus it will be interesting to see how all the big name voice actors (Damon, Blanchett, Neeson, and Fey) approach the characters and if they are able to bring the same level of skill that the original voice actors posses. Plus I am interested to see how newcomers, and siblings of some very talented people, Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus do in the roles of Sosuke and Ponyo respectively.
B+/A- or 4.28918243702814723105471
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