Friday, December 11, 2009

Ponyo: Movie Review

From the Academy-awarding winning director/animator, Hayao Miyazaki, who captivated audiences in 2001 with the magical smash-hit, Spirited Away, comes this tenth installment to an unbeatable repertoire of animated wonders. Brunhilda is the inquisitive and lovable little gold-fish with a mind of her own, who, while on an outing with her father, Fujimoto (an overbearing aquatic alchemist), escapes on an adventure that will take her from the depths of the ocean floor to the hands of Sosuke, a five-year-old boy with a heart of a gold and an aptitude for the sea. Sosuke takes Brunhilda into his care and names her Ponyo, but Fujimoto, wary of the bond that is steadily growing between them, sweeps her away and back into the ocean, where he discovers that (after tasting Sosuke's blood) Ponyo is slowly, but surely changing from fish to human. While attempting to halt Ponyo's transformation, Fujimoto has other fish to fry. In the bowels of his underwater lab, he is concocting a dangerous elixer that will leave all earth at the mercy of the ocean's stunning, but brutal power. When Ponyo, in a daring attempt to return to Sosuke, inadvertently releases the concoction on the ocean and all its denizens, the adventure begins in a jaw-dropping deluge that literally floods the big-screen with animated sequences that define Miyazaki as the master of the anime-film genre.

Hayao Myazaki's career on the anime-film circuit began in 1979 with The Castle of Cagliostro, the second installment in the Lupin III film trilogy. After a slew of animated films that included such triumphs as Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki's Delivery Service, Myazaki's career took a significant leap with Princess Mononoke, the first animated film to win Picture of the Year at the Japanese Academy Awards. Despite his growing fame amongst Japanese movie-goers, Myazaki remained virtually unknown in the U.S.. That is until the 2001 release of the horror/fantasy thriller, Spirited Away. The film made history as the highest grossing film in Japan (surpassing Titantic) and garnered an Academy award in the U.S. for Best Animated film. Ponyo is Myazaki's second full-length animated feature after Spirted Away (the first was Howl's Moving Castle in 2004).

The film's original Japanese audio featured the voices of award-winning actress Yuki Amami (as Ponyo's mother, Gran Mammare), J-drama star Tomoko Yamaguchi (as Sosuke's mother, Lisa), and singer/songwriter George Tokoro (as Fujimoto). The American adapation granted Noah Cyrus (the younger sister of pop star, Miley Cyrus) and Frankie Jonas (the younger brother of the pop trio, The Jonas Brothers) with their first major roles apart from their older siblings. Typical of most American adaptions of Myazaki films, Ponyo hosted a large cast of big-name actors, amongst whom were Tina Fey (as Lisa), Matt Damon (as Koichi, Sosuke's father), Liam Neeson (as Fujimoto), Cate Blanchett (as Gran Mammare), and Lily Tomlin, Chloris Leachman and Betty White as Toki, Yoshie and Kairo, residents of the Himawari House for senior citizens.

Ponyo's breath-taking animation is further brought to life by the outstanding score written by Joe Hisaishi, who has worked with Myazaki since 1983's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. The film's highpoint (which brings new meaning to walking on water) occurs mid-way through the plot, leaving the first half and the denoument to be sustained by the relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo and the antics of the more eccentric and mystical characters. Ponyo is adorable as a newcomer to the human world, fascinated by trivial objects, such as lamps, and towels, yet fostering a remarkable ability to show empathy for those around her. Sosuke will impress viewers as Ponyo's knight in shining armor, who surpasses many young boys his age not only with an advanced intelligence of nautical tactics, but also with a profound comprehension of morals.

The cast is rounded out by a host of colorful, secondary characters. Fujimoto's swim through the garbage-infested waters of the harbor in Sosuke's town and his foiled attempt at a recovery operation of Ponyo bring a bit of humour to an otherwise serious presence. A foil to Fujimoto's role is Ponyo's mother, Gran Mammare, a wise and loving god-like titan who has lived as one with her beloved ocean since prehistoric times. The character who will leave viewers with the most laughs, however, is Lisa, Sosuke's mother, who works as an aid at the Himawari House and whose talent behind the wheel has all the elements of an animated version of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

At the root of Ponyo's innocent humour, however, are the penetrating themes of love, discovery, and acceptance. Although it does not surpass, or even equal the caliber of other Myazaki films, Ponyo is yet another of Myazaki's creations to warm audiences with a universal message. Viewers see through Ponyo's eyes an appreciation for the world and its inhabitants that have so often been taken for granted amid the turbulent goings-on of every-day lives. Undoubtedly, a spectacular and entertaining feature that symbolizes the power of nature and the love of the human soul.

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