Sunday, October 4, 2009

PONYO review


Here’s a splash of cold water in the face…after watching “Ponyo” one weekday morning I felt so caught up in the magical symbolism of this Japanese animation created by Hayao Miyazaki that I started praising the film to the manager of the mall theater.

“There have been some great reviews, but it hasn’t done any business,” he said, adding a hand gesture for emphasis.

Unfortunately, his business report is easy to understand. Compared to the zip of those digital animarithons such as the “Ice Age” and “Madagascar” series, or the whimsy of buddy-movies like the “Toy Story” series, Mayazaki’s take on kid flicks can seem a little vague.

Really, his ephemeral dream creations aren’t even for children. His earlier pictures released in the States, “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and my personal favorite “Howl’s Moving Castle,” could never begin to match the box office bite of “WALL-E” or “Finding Nemo.”

Miyazaki taps into the childhood memories adults like to have. Who among us can resist opening any Dr. Seuss book we see anywhere, at a friend’s house, at a book store, on the street. It doesn’t matter. Those stories with their funny words are irresistible.

Miyazaki movies are the same way…if you are a grown-up wondering why childhood went by in such a flash and adulthood is taking forever just to get through the day. Slip out of the office, settle into an afternoon screening of “Ponyo” at the mall (maybe get a box of Milk Duds and some popcorn), then relax into those memories of being seven years old when anything could happen and occasionally did.

Using a palette of washed-out pastels, Miyazaki creates a constant flow of easy motion in an underwater world of currents that occasionally break above the surface to become rolling waves moving the story forward. The art work is distinctly hand drawn, eschewing any desire to look “real.” It is because the landscapes and seascapes have such symbolic approximations of reality that they become so delightfully dreamlike.

To give yourself up to this soft-edged fantasy is pure delight, enhanced by Miyazaki’s own insistence on a viewpoint of innocence that connects directly to the wonders of life in third grade. The plot is equally open-faced and unassuming.

Set in rural Japan by a busy sea channel, five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas of the Jonas Brothers clan) discovers a washed up goldfish with a human face, stuck in a glass bottle. Freeing the little critter, he puts it in a handy bucket, saves its life and is delighted to find the goldfish turning into an exuberantly cheerful little girl named Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, Miley’s kid sister).

But Ponyo’s enthusiasm inadvertently triggers a tsunami that upsets the human world and gets the attention of Ponyo’s god-like parents. Unfortunately, the huge storm also puts Sosuke’s parents in peril.

As everyone who has ever been a kid can tell you, there’s nothing worse than causing so much trouble several parents get involved. “Ponyo” does not have a happy ending, exactly, but for everyone who can stay inside the mind of a child there will be an optimistic resolution.


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