Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea Review


{insert trite, movie-reviewer-esque statement here}

Suggested statements: simply magical, a pure delight, an innocent wonder.

In a moment of sheer joy, I was able to go out and see Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea this past weekend, as some merciful Disney official for whatever reason decided that the bumfuck-ish place where my college is located would actually be a good place to release a film that was seeing limited engagement. Yes, I will agree that Ponyo (we’ll switch over to the dub’s title for convenience sake) does seem like a movie that would have a decently wide appeal in America, moreso than something like Princess Mononoke did, but the same could be said of Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, neither of which got much in the way of a theatrical release here. So I was basically expecting to have to piss and moan about not getting to see it until it found its way to DVD in a few months time. In short, I felt deliriously lucky.

And so what can I say about the movie itself?

Ponyo is definitely not Spirited Away or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. And that is actually not only okay, but great, since I loved both those movies, but was looking forward to see something more purely intended for children. Hayao Miyazaki is an incredibly capable filmaker, and Ponyo is no exception, as it features a charming story starring a strangely engaging lead – Ponyo, the girl-goldfish of magical powers and a desire to become human. I loved Ponyo – while she wasn’t exactly the Miyazaki heroine I’ve come to expect, she was nevertheless refreshingly energetic and possessed that trademark determination that Miyazaki so often endows his heroines with.

Her co-star, kindergartener Sousuke, is likewise very likable – he acts realistically, something that has become pretty odd in anime, and at the same time never devolves into an annoying cloyingness that child characters are sometimes susceptible to. He also isn’t a brat, which helps; but, perhaps more importantly, he isn’t a brat in a convincing manner, as perhaps implied by my indication that he doesn’t fall into the irritating trope of over-innocence and cuteness.

Ponyo is, really, a modern fairy tale, more Disney than Brothers Grimm. To some this will sound like a negative, since I am well-aware that there are many anime fans who look askance at any mention of Disney at all. This ignores, though, that Disney more or less perfected the format of making films which were, ultimately, good on both a technical and entertainment level (I will agree that many of the older films are fairly problematic in some aspects, though, and that I do prefer the original fairy tales over Disney’s iterations of). And, honestly, Ponyo falls within the Disney range, as it is both inspired by and much less violent than Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. There is a shadow lurking slighty about the edges, and there certainly is some subtext which adults can read into, but Ponyo is a children’s movie first and foremost, and intended for a modern children’s audience.

Since I have already brought up Disney, I’d like to touch on the dub. Quite frankly, those who’re bitching about it are the same people who months ago shrieked and wailed because of some of Disney’s casting decisions… namely, the fact that Ponyo is voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister, and that Sousuke is voiced by the youngest Jonas brother. While I was a little leery of this myself, the pair aquitted themselves quite nicely, and it was a welcome change from the usual approach in dubs of having adults voice child characters; basically, the kids sound like kids, not like adults trying to sound like five year olds. I was also fairly impressed with their ability to voice act, since it requires much more of an effort than does regular acting, since there is no opportunity for the actor to emphasize via body language or the like – the performance hinges entirely on one’s ability to inflect without sounding ridiculous. This is not an easy skill, and many adult voice actors themselves never master it.

As regards other roles, Tina Fey does a great job as Sosuke’s mother, managing to completely avoid the potential danger of not differentiating her character in the film from characters she’s played on Saturday Night Live (Sarah Palin!) or in her show 30 Rock. Liam Neeson, as Ponyo’s father Fujimoto, takes a little longer to warm up, though, sounding initially a bit stilted. And while a capable actress, Cate Blanchett seems an odd choice as Granmmamare, Ponyo’s mother, sounding strangely old despite the fact that Blanchett herself is only forty years old. Various supporting roles are played aptly, and if you glance through the credits you’ll notice some old hands from the anime dub world, such as Crispin Freemen and Colleen O’Shaughnessey (Sora from Digimon, anyone?).

As for script accuracy… come on – did you really have to ask or wonder? This is a Miyazaki film, a movie by the man seen as greater than a god by many – Disney couldn’t’ve messed with the script if they wanted to. The translation is both accurate and smooth, giving us none of the clunkiness you’ll get with less professional efforts (or from the folks at Funi having too much fun). While I’ll certainly shudder at the corporate culture Disney has managed to create over the years, there’s no denying their professionalism, which is put to full use here with good results.

And, yes, the ending credits were awful due to that travesty of a song courtesy of Noah Cyrus, the Jonas kid, and some heinous songwriter, but it’s pretty easy to sprint out of the theater before it kicks in, so you can deal with it.

To move onto other technical merits, the animation here is just awesome – here we see the true beauty of hand-done animation, something that has become so rare in this age of digital animation. Miyazaki himself did a lot of the drawings himself, evidence of his dedication to this approach. It really is a beautiful looking film, and there is a more human feeling to the thing because of the lack of computer-generation – sitting in front of the screen, one can almost feel the gentle roll of the ocean or the sharp wind of a gale.

Honestly, the setting is probably a large part of why I liked Ponyo so much – because not only are we in a seaside village, we’re in a seaside village that actually gets its relationship to the sea demonstrated; this isn’t an ocean as a pretty background like we got in AIR, for instance. Sousuke’s father is a fisherman, and he is often gone for a while, leaving his mother to take on all the housekeeping duties, childcare duties, and act as the source of regular income (I grew up by the sea, and I can tell you that a fisherman doesn’t have a regular income – its something entirely dependent on how one’s vessel performs at sea and is very much at the whims of nature). Details like Sousuke and his mother using the antenna to try to contact his father or using the light signals to communicate with him are nice touches that round out the setting, lending a welcome degree of reality to the setting.

Look, let’s be honest – I loved, loved, loved Ponyo. I was the one sitting in the theater grinning through the entire movie like a moron. I told you why I liked it, and I tried to be objective, but I would have to say most of all that you should just go watch it yourself. It won’t take long, and you’ll probably like it. So give it a whirl.

On a final note, I used the above picture because it reminded me of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I loved that book =)

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10 Responses to Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea Review

  1. Baka-Raptor says:

    Just saw it yesterday. Sousuke’s mom has got it goin’ on. Overall it was awesome, except for all the mushy stuff. I thought I was going to puke when Ponyo said “Ponyo loves Sousuke!”

    • Baka-Raptor says:

      Additionally, that song during the credits sucked.

      • adaywithoutme says:

        Well, you already know how I felt about the song.

        It did get a wee mushy at points, although I wonder if that had more to do with the difficulty of translating ‘suki’ – technically, the closest English equivalent is that adolescent term ‘like like‘, which honestly sounds wicked dumb in English… so they had to go with love, I guess.

        Sousuke’s mom definitely had it going on; that she voiced by Tina Fey helped a lot, too.

      • RP says:

        That song is hilarious! Although I heard they used a different version in the Disney dub?

  2. adaywithoutme says:

    @ RP – Yes, they used a different version – go here is you have high tolerance for eardrum abuse.

  3. Shin says:

    The Jonas brothers define this generation.

  4. glothelegend says:

    I loved this too. Miyazaki could make a movie about going to the store to buy milk and it would be good.

  5. Toller Post, danke.

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