Reel Time

Dale Hill


            Last Friday a little-known movie crept into town with no drums or trumpets to announce its arrival, and I hope you'll give yourself a treat and go see it.

            The movie is “Ponyo,” and it's the latest full-length animated feature by Hayao Miyazaki, the master of Japanese Anime, and winner of many awards.

            A few years back a friend of mine came out of a screening of Miyazaki's “Spirited Away”   saying “Disney it isn't!” You may see little quotes from Disney here and there (mostly from older or middle-period films like “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia”), but with such vividness and eye-spinning detail, and such a subtle use of color that the effect is dreamlike and almost hallucinatory. You can depend on Miyazaki to amaze you with visuals that, unless you're an old fan of his, are like nothing you've ever seen, and he does it without computer images. Though he has used some CGI detailing in earlier films, “Ponyo” is entirely hand drawn, and it's good to be reminded of what the old techniques can accomplish.

            In the opening sequence of “Ponyo” we dive from the surface of the ocean, where cargo ships sail around the visible curvature of the earth, into depths where everything is suffused with pale aqueous blues and greens and mauves. Schools of strangely unfamiliar fish swim by, and a sorcerer in a striped sport coat stands on the deck of his submarine orchestrating more colors out of his magic vases. As he is thus distracted, a funny little creature that looks like a Cabbage Patch polliwog escapes from a porthole, heads for the surface on the back of a jellyfish, and gets frightened by an approaching ship. 

            This all takes about five minutes before the opening credits, and you may sit through it the way I did, with my jaw hanging open and, apparently, not breathing.

            The little polliwog creature is revealed later as Ponyo,  the daughter of the wizard, and everybody refers to her as a goldfish, which is one of those jumps you just have to make in order to immerse yourself in Miyazaki's magic.  The goldfish gets trapped in the trash haul of a trawler net, and a little boy rescues her and names her. Ponyo falls in love with the little boy and begins to develop human characteristics, much to her father's dismay, for his job is to protect the oceans from human degradation. “They treat the sea like their empty back souls,” he growls.

            So we have here a variation on “The Little Mermaid” but with some strange and wonderful cultural differences. “Fish with faces that come out of the sea cause tsunamis!” says one character, which for all I know is a Japanese legend. For another thing, Sōsuke, the little boy, always says Please and Thank You. (This may all sound too weird for little kids, but the five-year-olds at the screenings I saw were having a great time.)

            Having grown up after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then seeing the mechanization of Japan's economic recovery, the earth's fragility has always been one of Miyazaki's major themes. Ponyo's mother is the Great Sea Mother, who is also the Goddess of Mercy, so you know there will be a happy ending, with Ponyo and Sōsuke united, and nature restored to balance, but not before we've seen some sad evidence of mankind's poisonous sloppiness.

            Composer Joe Hisaishi has provided a lush, evocative, and very chameleon-like musical score for the movie; I made a note when I heard hints of different composers, and the list includes Humperdinck, Copland, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Holst, Gershwin and Vaughan-Williams, and a quite marvelous re-working of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries during a huge storm, when Ponyo runs on the backs of giant fish that morph into waves and back again.

            But the movie's magic is balanced and strengthened by another Miyazaki trademark, scenes of domestic life and family affection. Sōsuke and his mother Lisa have a very happy life together, and they both show real fondness for the residents of the Senior home where Lisa works. (Three of the Seniors are voiced by Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White, which will give you an idea of the level of voice talent involved.)

            In a movie that contains explosions of golden fish almost too bright to look at, swamps full of creatures from the Devonian period, dark waves with threatening eyes, and a goddess who covers the sky with her glowing mantle, there's also the homey magic of making tea with honey. And a gentle nocturne when  Sōsuke trades signal-light messages with his father on a passing ship is one of the most charming scenes in recent memory.