Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Miyazaki Artistry, Disney Product

It's a testament to the film making craft of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli that even The Walt Disney Corporation's patented whitewashing (or should that be white supremacy?) can't rob Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea of its artistry --- only its culture. The circumcision of the title from the elegant, alluring Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea to the decidedly more marketable Ponyo is only part of Disney's pandering to Western xenophobia; as per their tradition with Western Studio Ghibli releases, all the original voices are dubbed with marketable 'stars', a move that draws more attention to itself than anything. Instead of the voices fitting their characters as they do in the Japanese versions, they just find 'name' people to voice the roles for Western audiences, depriving these animations of their spirit and their ethnicity. This is as transparent move to appease jingoism as I've ever seen, not to mention it encourages illiteracy amongst children and adults (illiteracy in third-world nations is the only reason dubbing became a practice in the first place, then laziness made sure it was here to stay). The more voracious the marketing campaign (it's opening in 800 whole theaters. That's, what, a third of what G-Force and G.I. Joe got?), the more these distinctly Hollywood personalities stick out from the film itself. Still, it's amazing that in an era where animation is dominated by Pixar and Dreamworks banality that something as benign and visually imaginative as Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea even made it to American shores in the first place. That we must tolerate DisneyCo tarting up what they view as mere product is the sad price we must pay.

Miyazaki's films bring an Eastern folk-element to traditional coming of age stories, and this is probably why his films have struck as much of a chord overseas as they have in Japan. In spite of the fact that Miyazaki perceptively documents Japanese culture and social issues --- bourgeois attitudes, war, and environmentalism in his latest three films --- he is never patronizing or moralistic, mercifully avoiding the Pixar trap. Ponyo concerns a young anthropomorphic goldfish-girl's (it's a lot less contrived than I make it sound) quest to break out of her fish form and become a human; touches of Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid abound, but Miyazaki avoids directly reminding us of any thematic similarities by fleshing out the story with his own unique sensibility. Ponyo, even in its more low-key, quiet moments, is packed with Miyazaki's typically eye popping visual palette; every frame feels like the illustrations in a storybook brought to life, fleshed out with Miyazaki's breathtaking sense of color and wondrous, seemingly limitless visual imagination.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea may be more simplistic and directed at children than some of Miyazaki's other, more universal works, but it's refreshing seeing a movie that actually pays homage to the depth of childhood experience. Unlike Pixar, who has taken to portraying their core demographic as fat, lazy, and ignorant, Miyazaki has the utmost respect for children; he portrays them as pure, wise, and intelligent. When Ponyo first ventures to the shore and is captured by a young five year old boy Sosuke, he immediately takes to her, as we took took to animals as children. The central conceit of a goldfish struggling to become human is a brilliant metaphor for what we projected onto our pets as children; we thought of them not as creatures inferior to us, but as companions and friends that were our responsibility. There is a scene early on where Sosuke is afraid he's lost Ponyo forever --- without even thinking about what could happen to him, he rushes out into the water trying to find his fish. As he struggles, hopelessly, to find his lost pet, I felt the same sadness and frustration that the little boy on screen felt; anyone who has ever lost an animal has probably felt the same kind of outpouring of emotion, the feeling both of missing the pet and of feeling like you let the animal down. It's because Miyazaki has such an intimate connection to childhood that he's able to detail what it feels like to be one so effectively.

Miyazaki also understands the way adults don't take the concerns of children seriously; in Spirited Away, all the problems arise from the fact that the main character's parents don't listen to their child. In Ponyo, the titular character wants to escape from her undersea life and join the ranks of humanity, but her father won't hear of it --- partially because he doesn't like people very much (and with all the pollution of his undersea home, who can blame him?), but mostly because he doesn't want to lose his daughter. While it would have been easy to cast Ponyo's father into a villain role Miyazaki refuses to deny him his humanity; he doesn't have 'heroes' and 'villains' in the traditional sense, as such obvious storytelling cliches are beneath his sensibility.

Ponyo is one of few new releases to be daring enough to find joy in life, and to allow that sense of joy and wonder to be its guiding force. I have minor quibbles with it (Westernization aside), namely in the way the plot is resolved at the end, and the general cutesy nature of it all, but I can look passed them because Ponyo is a feast for the eyes and for the soul. I can also let the how child-friendly it all is slide because children deserve a movie that respects them instead of condescending towards them --- and children (bright children, anyway) respond to this element of Miyazaki's films. Their emotional simplicity, their honest reflections of human experience, and humanity are essential values that have long since disappeared from Disney's work. When so many animated movies have the cold feel of being made on a computer (including, in many cases, a story that feels as mechanical as the animation), it's refreshing to see a work of animation that has a distinctly human touch; there is almost an impressionist quality to the drawings, which may not flesh out every solitary detail but are still visually ravishing. Ponyo proves that Miyazaki is one of the few popular artists saving animation from banality and formula, and he deserves nothing but support and respect for doing so.


Adam Zanzie said...

Thumbs up for "Ponyo", but I was slightly disappointed that the film wasn't quite on par with "Princess Mononoke", in which Miyazaki basically fueled my sudden interest in SERIOUS anime around the time when I was in 7th grade or so (I still have to see "Castle in the Sky", "My Neighbor Totoro", and even "Spirited Away"- which I hear is his best).

Walking out of the theater, I heard two 20-something guys say, "It was more on the lines of 'Kiki's Delivery Service'". Judging from what I've seen of that film in particular (caught a little bit of it on the Disney Channel awhile back in my youth), I'm inclined to agree. "Ponyo" is an excellent entertainment, but I wanted MORE! I'll never forget the experience I had watching "Princess Mononoke", which may have been the first movie that opened up my eyes to the importance of the enviornment. Or maybe it was John McTiernan's "Medicine Man" (1992), with Sean Connery as a tree-hugging scientist fighting off businessmen trying to tear down the Amazon. One of those two.

The biggest problem with "Ponyo" is the anticlimax. What "test" does the kid pass? Basically it's Ponyo's father who saves the world from being crushed by the moon. What did the kid do that was so special, besides dragging Ponyo along for the ride? I was expecting something along the line of the ending of "Pan's Labyrinth" (kill the baby, or sacrifice yourself instead?), but instead of running to Pony's father, the kid runs to that Lily Tomlin hag. Technically, he wasn't supposed to do that. So, I don't get it. And the world was saved anyway!

And yeah, I hated that voice by Miley Cyrus's sister. Worst voice acting ever. I loved that image of the kid dragging the boat along the floodwaters while an exhausted Ponyo lies on top of the tugboat, however.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, I definitely hear where you're coming from, though I think of this more as a children's film and I don't think there is anything wrong with it. Miyazaki has been known to go back and forth between more mature, adult works (which I think are still appropriate for children), and then movies tailor made for children (which I think this would qualify). As I said in the review, it doesn't bother me too much because he has so much respect for children.

Yeah, the climax definitely feels rushed. Everything comes together a bit too quickly and a bit too neatly, but it's still such a stunningly animated movie, with such a sense of energy and joy, that I can't hold that against it too much.

And yeah, the American voice acting was pretty bad, especially on the part of the little Cyrus (is DisneyCo gonna shove every last member of that talentless cracker family down our throat?). Can't wait for the DVD, when I can watch it subtitled.

Adam Zanzie said...

Have you watched "Princess Mononoke" subtitled? Some of the female characters- notably the head wolf voiced by Gillian Anderson in the American version- are voiced by low-toned Japanese men.