My pal Peg convinced me to run off for a matinee this week even though I have a million and one things to do what with the approaching semester. We saw the latest Ghibli film, Ponyo. I love Miyazai's films, so no surprise, I really enjoyed this one, too, though it doesn't rate with the best of his work. Pitched at a very young audience, it lacks the complex nuance of works like Mononoke Hime or Kiki. Peg thought it needed a lot more backstory on characters, too. But there is a mythic thread that underscores the fairly subtle environmental message (obvious enough in the sight of all the trash that fills the ocean) in this retelling of Andersen's Little Mermaid story.
I'm so accustomed to the soaring heights of Miyazaki's imagination, that it's odd to think of him doing an underwater film, yet water allows for the same fluid joyful movement. It also allows him to people the ocean with all manner of amazing creatures. Some are amazing because they're unusual sights: when the ocean becomes unbalanced by the "goldfish" Ponyo's attempt to become human and surges over much of the land, ancient fish (coelacanths!) swim down the streets of the town.
But even the less impressive creatures are a delight. I recall in particular an octopus sidling in the doorway behind Ponyo and Sosuke, the little boy who has befriended her, as they stare in wonder at the newly watery world around them. Miyazaki invests so much into these details. The whole of the screen comes alive with magic. The sheer delight of watching Ponyo run atop the waves is equally matched by her total captivation with the simple actions of making tea and noodles. Impossible not to smile.
The American voice cast is on the whole good. Considering the horrible effects that can have -- Mononoke was poorly served by its central voice actors -- this is praise indeed, with standouts Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cate Blanchett as Ponyo's mother, the mère of the mere, who's described as "beautiful" but also big and a little bit frightening (which is quite wonderful -- the awesome power of the ocean goddess).
The only real Disney effect (apart from the tacked on logo, which we booed) was the horrible pop song at the end. The rest is pure Miyazaki. Not the best he has done, but still delightful.