Legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has been threatening to retire for years now, at least as far back as 1997's 'Princess Mononoke'. Each film he's directed since then has been rumored as his swan song from making movies. Until the next one, of course. So here we are a little over a decade later with his newest animated epic, 'Ponyo' (or 'Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea', depending on release territory). Just as his last feature, 'Howl's Moving Castle', was based on a British children's book, Miyazaki has once again turned to Western literature as the springboard to let his imagination run wild. 'Ponyo' is credited as being "inspired by" (loosely inspired – very, very loosely) Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Little Mermaid', as well as Disney's previous animated adaptation of it. As with most of Miyazaki's works, the film is a fusion of Eastern and Western storytelling styles filtered through the director's own peculiar cinematic sensibilities.
All of Miyazaki's films are told from a child's point of view. Most of his protagonists fall in the 10-12 year-old range (what we would now call 'tweens). His pictures from 'Mononoke' forward have had a slightly mature bent, or at least tell stories of children trying to adapt to an adult world. Both 'Spirited Away' and 'Howl's Moving Castle' focus on that very specific point where a child starts to decide what type of person he or she wants to become. 'Ponyo', on the other hand, is a return to the style and tone of the director's earlier, more kid-centric works like 'My Neighbor Totoro' and 'Castle in the Sky'. In fact, this one is pitched at his youngest audience yet.
The title character in 'Ponyo' is a fish. Or a girl. Or a blobby fish-like thing with a shapeless pink body and a girl's face. She's weird, is what I'm saying. Ponyo and a hundred younger sisters of the same design are the product of mad wizard-scientist Fujimoto, a human who has withdrawn from society and curses mankind for its careless destruction of the natural world. Fujimoto lives in a special undersea lair where he performs magical experiments and plots the creation of a new Cambrian Era where the oceans will rise up and marine life will once more dominate the Earth. Ponyo herself isn't so interested in that. She's just a child who wants to make friends and play.
One day, Ponyo runs away (or, more accurately, swims away) in search of fun and adventure. In no time at all, she washes up on shore, into the hands of 5 year-old Sosuke, who thinks she's a goldfish. A really freaky goldfish with a human face and hair, perhaps; but hey, the kid is only 5. He wants to keep her as a pet. For her part, Ponyo falls instantly in love with Sosuke. She eventually learns to use her innate magical powers to transform herself into a real human girl. Unfortunately, their happiness is interrupted when Fujimoto and his aquatic minions raise up a terrible typhoon that threatens to destroy Sosuke's seaside town.
In typical Miyazaki fashion, 'Ponyo' is set in a world where magic is taken for granted. Sosuke's mother doesn't flinch a bit when he brings home a crazy fish-girl thing, or seem at all surprised when that thing suddenly appears in human form. Monsters, wizards, and nature gods are simply accepted as part of the fabric of everyday existence.
Miyazaki has a masterful ability to capture the actions and behaviors of young children, perhaps better than just about any other filmmaker. Sosuke is palpably real as a 5 year-old. The director has also once again managed to craft an adventure story without villains, per se. His antagonists (like Fujimoto) may be misguided, but are multi-dimensional characters with legitimate motivations and the capacity to recognize and learn from their mistakes.
The film is animated in a deceptively simplistic style wherein the characters move around in front of static, storybook-like backgrounds. It's really quite lovely and elegant. When the time comes, Miyazaki conjures up some truly remarkable images in the course of the story. In its most compelling scenes, the movie is filled with all sorts of fantastical sights and wonderful weirdness that defies description.
And yet, with all that said, 'Ponyo' is a decidedly lesser Miyazaki work. It has his patented charm, but the environmental message (another of his trademarks) is just too simple and too heavy-handed this time, even in comparison to some of his preachier efforts like 'Nausicaa' or 'Princess Mononoke'. Undoubtedly, he felt the need to simplify the story for the younger audience. But, in doing so, he's perhaps targeted the movie too young. 'Ponyo' has less of interest for adults to enjoy than most of his other films, which usually appeal to all age groups. 'Ponyo' is specifically a children's movie, not necessarily a family movie. If he intended it as a return to his animated roots, it feels more like a regression.
Even mediocre Miyazaki is more interesting than most of the mindless drivel that American animation studios produce (Pixar excepted). 'Ponyo' may not be in the masterpiece league of some of his other recent offerings, but still manages to showcase the director's rich imagination and unique point of view.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ponyo' has been released by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment (a division of Buena Vista Home Entertainment) as a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD set. Like most titles from the studio, the Blu-ray disc opens with several annoying trailers before the main menu. Fortunately, these trailers can be skipped using the Top Menu command.
The Blu-ray contains both the English and Japanese versions of the movie. In addition to the soundtrack language, each version has different opening and closing credits. Your choice of language in the main menu will determine which set of credits play with the movie. This choice can only be made at the main menu screen. After playback of the movie has started, you cannot change language options between English and Japanese on-the-fly. However, you may still switch between English and French. (The French soundtrack always plays with the English credits.) The only way to change between English (or French) and Japanese is to stop playback and return to the top menu.
Although the artwork in 'Ponyo' was drawn traditionally, each frame was scanned and assembled digitally, as is the standard modern practice. This is equivalent to the Digital Intermediate stage of a live-action picture. As a result, the production avoids any issues with dirt or grit being trapped between cel layers, as might have plagued older animated movies. The Blu-ray is transferred straight from the digital animation files, without a film step in between.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is presented in the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, with very small letterbox bars. Unlike the DVD transfers of many of Studio Ghibli's previous movies (notably 'Spirited Away'), 'Ponyo' is not burdened with windowboxing on all four sides of the frame.
The high-def image is very nearly perfect. The picture is extraordinarily crisp and revealing of pencil line detail in the artwork. The disc has no visible Edge Enhancement or artificial sharpening artifacts (another common problem with Ghibli DVDs). Colors are vibrant and beautiful. My only complaint is a recurring presence of some color banding artifacts. The issue isn't severe, but is just noticeable enough to keep the disc from perfection.
Here's where Disney blows it. Someone at the studio clearly doesn't think very highly of foreign-language movies. Like previous Blu-ray editions for films such as 'Hero', 'Zatoichi', 'Iron Monkey', and 'The Legend of Drunken Master', the 'Ponyo' disc contains a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack only for the English dub. The original Japanese-language soundtrack is offered only in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a huge disappointment.
The Dolby Digital track isn't terrible, per se. It has a reasonably robust presence in the front soundstage. Still, overall it sounds a little thin and lacks body. Surround and bass activity are weak. While 'Ponyo' was never meant to be a slam-bang action movie, the lossless English track is definitely a touch richer and more enveloping.
I'm not a fan of dubs under any circumstances, not even for animated movies. However, I recognize their necessity on a picture intended mainly for children. The English track here was supervised by the Pixar team and features a number of celebrity voices including Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, and Betty White. Truthfully, many of the voices are so recognizable that they stand out as distracting. Nevertheless, most of the adult cast is competent enough. Unfortunately, the two child leads (Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus) are grating on the ears. The end credits theme song has also been re-recorded in English (by said Cyrus and Jonas) and is really, really terrible, especially when it gets to the Auto-Tuned dance remix section. Ugh.
I appreciate that Disney bothered to include the original Japanese track for adults and purists. But there's no excuse for them to reduce it in quality compared to the dub. Viewers who'd like to hear the Japanese track in lossless quality will be forced to import foreign Blu-ray editions.
It's also worth noting that the English subtitles fail to translate the Japanese credits or song lyrics.
'Ponyo' is one of those discs that, judging only by the listings in the menu pages, seems to be loaded with supplemental content. Unfortunately, once you start digging into them, you'll find that most of the features are very short and insubstantial.
The Blu-ray edition also comes with a DVD copy of the film in the same package. Unlike the standard retail DVD release, the disc in this set contains only the "Meet Ponyo" introduction, but none of the other supplements.
The latest animated adventure from the creator of 'Spirited Away' and 'Howl's Moving Castle' is unfortunately not quite up to the same standard as those prior works. 'Ponyo' is too much of a children's film, and not enough of a family film. However, it's still richly imagined and, frankly, strange enough to merit viewing. Pre-existing fans of director Hayao Miyazaki will undoubtedly find it more interesting than casual viewers.
The Blu-ray has gorgeous video, but Disney has once again dropped the ball when it comes to the audio quality of a foreign film. The disc only prioritizes the English dub with a lossless soundtrack, and relegates the original Japanese-language track to a lesser-quality lossy format. To rectify that problem, Miyazaki disciples may wish to import foreign Blu-ray editions rather than support the studio's poor decision by purchasing this domestic release.