Miyazaki’s greatest hits, poorly remixed

PonyoPonyo
(Gake no ue no Ponyo)
MIyazaki Hayao, Japan, 2008
Viewed on 35mm, Aug. 22

I am an insufferable purist who always prefers to see films in the original language (the last foreign film I watched in English was another Miyazaki film, Spirited Away, in its 2002 US theatrical release), but this time I decided that it was worth the trade-off to see it in the big screen.

After watching it, I learned that Noah Cyrus younger sister of Disney Channel star Miley “Hannah Montana” Cyrus (yes, it’s not enough to cast celebrities, now they’re casting the relatives of celebrities), provides the voice the little girl in the English version, but by this point, Cyrus’ inept attempts at voice acting (lots of shouting) almost ruined what was otherwise a pleasant experience). Unless you have a small child and as such have to watch it in English regardless, I’d wait for the DVD or the Blu-ray so that you can listen to what is undoubtedly a superior Japanese vocal track (I say this without having heard it, of course!).

As for the film itself, I feel that I can only explain it by comparing it to his earlier work. In the 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki told an amazingly powerful, minimalist story with a couple of very young children and a largely-mundane, domestic setting, with minimal magic. In the aforementioned Spirited Away, he plunged an equally young child into an elaborate, often-bizarre (at least if you’re not familiar with Japanese mythology) fantasy world.

Ponyo splits the difference between these two approaches. Like Totoro, the film minimizes the degree to which conflict drives the plot. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, there is no straightforward villain. Both of these facts are still somewhat remarkable for a feature film of any cultural tradition, but despite some refreshing characterizations (particularly Lisa, the main character’s mother), Miyazaki struggles to hold the viewer’s attention here, something that was rarely a problem for him in the past.

Certainly, it’s still worth a look on home video, as the visual inventiveness is considerable (and, as in Spirited Away, downright-unnerving at times). However, the core of the film is a bit lacking. Ponyo flirts with the ecological theme of Princess Mononoke and the family crisis theme of Totoro, but seems to shy away from pursuing any theme very closely, in notable contrast to those earlier films. Like any greatest hits album, this effort seems to lurch between different periods and ideas without really achieving the coherence or success of Miyazaki’s greatest moments in their original context.

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