Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Released Tuesday on DVD: "Ponyo"


Grade: A-plus

To watch the image of a young girl burbling with laughter as she runs atop cresting waves in Ponyo is to be reminded of how infrequently the movies seem to express joy now, how rarely they sweep us up in ecstatic reverie. It's a giddy, touchingly resonant image of freedom -- the animated girl is as liberated from shoes as the laws of nature -- one that director Hayao Miyazaki lingers on only as long as it takes your eyes and mind to hold it close, love it deeply and immediately regret its impermanence

The girl is running parallel to an island road, her eyes wildly fixed on a small car perilously whipping around hairpin bends in a raucous storm. Her name is Ponyo (gurgled and voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley's younger sister) and she was once some kind of half-human, half-fish daughter of the sea. But she found a boy, the 5-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, yet another one of those brothers), or rather he found her, rescuing her by scooping her into a pail. The two were separated -- as fated characters invariably are -- but she's found him. Now, as she races along the surface of huge peaking waves she has summoned up by the force of her power, Ponyo is expressing not only her bliss, but also ours.

Ponyo is the latest masterwork from Miyazaki, the influential Japanese animator who has advanced the art with films like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. The new film, despite the initial distractions of the recognizable voices crammed into the English-language version (a subdued Matt Damon, a fine Betty White) shares thematic and visual similarities with his earlier work, notably its emphasis on the natural world, its tumults and fragility. (As Miyazaki once put it, "All my animation and comics involve land, sea and sky -- they all revolve around what happens on earth.") But Ponyo, which takes some inspiration from The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen's macabre fairy tale, has a narrative simplicity, or rather the clarity of a distillation.

Despite the connection to Andersen's tale, there is nothing remotely ghoulish about Ponyo. No blood and only a few anxious tears are spilled. Far more than Miyazaki's other recent films, this one obviously has been created for young viewers, who will have no trouble grasping its broad story or understanding why the characters do what they do, as when Sosuke, worried about prowling cats, places a leaf over the pail with the goldfish girl. At that point Ponyo is as big as Sosuke's hand. With her broadly smiling, pale human face and wiggling, red fish body, she looks a little like one of the girls that the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara likes to draw, minus the scowl. She also looks a bit like a well-dressed tadpole.

Like the other characters, with their clean lines and bright splashes of color, Ponyo tends to pop slightly on the screen. Although Miyazaki eschews the deep space of 3-D animation (over his dead body, as he recently suggested), he is acutely sensitive to texture, an awareness that translates into different visual designs for individual scenes and which intensifies the emotional register of those same scenes. The softly smudged field of grass that surrounds Sosuke's house like a blanket is striking partly because you can see the touch of the human hand in each blade. The blurred pastel quality of the grass, the softness of this green mantle, convey a feeling of comfort that in turn summons up words like warmth, home, love.

Under the ocean the colors are more saturated and the lines often sharper. In this magical realm of undulating creatures and twinkling lights, Ponyo's father, a wizard named Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), practices his mysterious art. From the prow of a submerged vessel, Fujimoto -- the long tendrils of his rusty red hair waving around his head like octopus tentacles -- releases potions that restore the health of the pollution-choked waters.

It's hard not to think of the wizard, particularly when he gently and very cleanly curses the human world and its harmful ways, as something of a Miyazaki self-portrait. Whatever the case, like his creator, Fujimoto can't keep Ponyo under wraps: she springs from the sea, exploding into the world with a reckless, infectious, almost calamitous exuberance.

This is nature unbound, or maybe it's the image of childhood right before culture takes over and initiates its relentless tsk-tsking, telling us to mind our manners, shut our mouths and sit up in our seats. Smitten with Sosuke, Ponyo decides she wants to be human, a wish that involves a visit from her mother (Cate Blanchett) and almost upends the balance of the world. As in the original Andersen fairy tale, which turns on a mermaid who dies because she falls in love with a landlocked prince, humanity has its costs. Not to worry; no one dies in Ponyo or even coughs. Its sting is so gentle you might miss it. But when the ocean rises in this wonderful movie, each leaping wave stares out at us with a baleful eye as if in watchful and worried wait.

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