Last year there was a big to-do around Disney's return to traditional, 2D animation with The Princess and the Frog. They hadn't done 2D in years, it was their first black princess, Disney good-luck charm Randy Newman was playing on his home field with good, old-fashioned jazz music, and it was all set in New Orleans, which felt topical with production having begun around Hurricane Katrina. And then the movie came and went with little fanfare. Yet still it got nominated for an Academy Award, essentially as a reflex.
However, that same year an animated film called Ponyo, from famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, had a limited American release and was, in a fun, quiet, extraordinary way, brilliant. It wasn't nominated at all.
The cover of the Blu-ray says that the film is "Inspired By The Classic Hans Christian Andersen Story The Little Mermaid." Indeed it is, but inspiration can lead you to some very unusual places, and going in expecting this to be like Disney's The Little Mermaid is going to disappoint. The film uses the basic structure of the story, a mermaid risking a dangerous transformation against the wishes of her father out of love for a human, and turns it into a more impressionistic riff on family dynamics, environmental concerns, and a multi-age community.
If you haven't seen a Hayao Miyazaki film yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. He's a true master artist who has made heartfelt, moving, traditionally animated movies for decades now. His films range from very light, breezy fare for younger audiences like Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro to more thoughtful, mature movies like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Most of his films have a conservationist undercurrent and center around young characters, almost always female, finding their place in an adult world that is mysterious, sometimes dangerous, and always full of magic.
In Ponyo the titular character is an adorable little fish creature who escapes the overly protective world of her father (voiced in the English language track by Liam Neeson) and falls in love with a little boy named Sosuke. Miyazaki has made Ponyo and Sosuke into children around eight years old, thereby transforming the romance of the original Little Mermaid story into something more innocent and emblematic less of romantic love than a social contract of care and responsibility for those around us and the world we live in.
One of Miyazaki's greatest talents is how he creates his worlds and makes them feel lived in. While most animated features want to rush to get to the big song numbers and action set pieces, some of the most interesting moments in Ponyo involve watching the newly humanized sea creature get used to moving around Sosuke's family home and the sincere elation she experiences at simple things like a quick noodle dinner.
Miyazaki also has a deft hand at creating relationships that feel completely natural. Sosuke's family isn't a picture-perfect ideal, but isn't a standard issue dramatic broken home, either. His father works on a boat and is gone for long periods of time, putting strain on Sosuke's mother, who also works as a nurse in a retirement home and keeps the house in order largely all by herself. Sosuke's mother, voiced by Tina Fey, is a wonderful character that Miyazaki allows to be frustrated, mopey, and upset, but those honest emotions only make her love and affection for Sosuke and Ponyo all the more touching. Even Neeson's character, who could almost be seen as the villain, is created with care, understanding, and sympathy, so we can see the parental concern coming through even his sternest actions. This is also informed by and plays off of his role as a gatekeeper for the balance of nature within the ocean.
The English language release of the film was executive produced by John Lasseter, one of the driving forces behind Pixar and the director of a number of their films, including the first two Toy Story films and Cars. Lasseter shows up in a few of the disc's special features discussing how he has always viewed Miyazaki as an inspiration and a mentor. If you're a fan of Pixar you will definitely be able to see Miyazaki's influence, not only in how the stories and characters are written, but with the films' direction and use of color as well.
The Blu-ray, released through Disney and overseen by the likes of John Lasseter and the Pixar crew, is handled with exactly the kind of love and care you would expect from a company with resources like Disney's and with someone who obviously carries the kind of adoration for the material that Lasseter does. There are a whole host of behind the scenes featurettes, most around ten minutes long, that deal with various aspects of the film like music, setting, design, story creation, and so on. I particularly enjoyed the special about the town Miyazaki used as the inspiration for the setting of the story, a beautiful old Japanese seaport that Miyazaki supposedly told his long-time collaborator he wanted to run away to, like a child. I also enjoyed the feature on the English voice acting, especially watching Tina Fey and Liam Neeson discuss their characters and watching little Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, Ponyo and Sosuke respectively, do their voice acting while using Ponyo puppets to help physicalize their speech.
There are also introductions to the worlds of a couple of other Miyazaki movies as well, in one of the prettiest Blu-ray special features menus I've ever seen. All of Miyazaki's films are represented in a beautiful, moving diorama. Sadly only Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away get any particular notice, but it's an enticing view all the same.
The visuals are, as would be expected, gorgeous. After hearing Miyazaki in the features discuss how carefully every aspect of the film was labored over, particularly things the viewer takes for granted, like how to create the color and movement of the water, watching the movie in the stunning 1080p high def transfer really shows that craftsmanship at work. Just watch the scene where Ponyo races along the tops of giant fish-like creatures made of water to try and catch Sosuke speeding off with his mother in their car. The fluidity of movement, the precision and brightness of the colors, and the extraordinary expression of the design are all perfectly captured in this transfer. There's a reason a lot of stores used the Cars Blu-ray to show off their high def televisions. John Lasseter is a man who demands quality, and has done so here.
The sound design is also excellent. Sometimes with dubbing in foreign films there can be a distinct difference in the original sound design and the over-dubbed dialogue, but Miyazaki has long held strict control over the qualities of his films, even in their exported dubbed versions, and his films have consequently always featured first-rate voice acting and expert technical integration. Ponyo is another top of the line sound creation, expertly mixed in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio to create a fluid, evocative sound experience that is dreamy, yet always crystal clear. The voices come in sharp, the sound design is well crafted and creates a world of its own, and Miyazaki's longtime music collaborator Joe Hisaishi turns in a beautiful, award-winning score, as well as a pretty catchy theme-song sung by the two young stars Cyrus and Jonas, both from families building new music dynasties.
This is a fantastic all-ages film and one that, like Miyazaki's entire catalog, I cannot recommend enough. Please check it out.