Review

Ponyo

Director    Hayao Miyazaki
Starring    Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman
Release    14 AUG (US) 12 FEB (UK)    Certificate U
4 stars

Darren

18th February 2010

Spirited Away introduced a larger audience to the majestic works of Japanese anime genius Hayao Miyazaki, lifting the profile of the studio he founded, Studio Ghibli.Since then, the many magical yet ecologically conscious animated features within Miyazaki's impressive back catalogue - like Pom Poko and Nausicaa Valley Of The Wind - have been redistributed and are now readily available in high street stores.

Many people are now well aware of the mercurial charm that enlivens every Miyazaki release.As the computer generated animation made popular by Pixar continues to dominate animation, the meticulous, hand-drawn style favoured by Studio Ghibli, looks all the more distinguished and refreshing.

There's much more of a Western influence of late in Miyazaki films. His last film Howl's moving castle, was based on a British short story and anyone watching Ponyo will spot that it is a thinly disguised retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Miyazaki purists might be worried that the anime legend is going to give a surrealist makeover to the Disney legacy. It's fair to say that the Western influence somewhat dilutes the weirdly way-out style as seen in the director's earlier films. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of beguiling Eastern strangeness in Miyazaki's method to entrance young and old alike.

[gallery]Whilst Ponyo is far more cutesy than earlier Miyazaki features, the revered director totally reinvents an age-old story about a little sea creature whose contact with a small boy gives her a yearning to switch her aquatic form for the body of a human.On the surface, the narrative is more conventional than we are used to from Miyazaki, but this simple story is re-imagined with the offbeat sense of wonder expected of Studio Ghibli output.
The ocean is a perfect canvas for Miyazaki's fervent imagination; his kooky vision of the sea and the many oddities that lurk amongst its waves in Ponyo are delightfully enchanting.

There's always a tremendous innocence within Miyazaki's films - Ponyo continues this trend. Few filmmakers can capture the charming sense of childhood naivety as well as Miyazaki. This story is told entirely from the perspective of a lovable little boy who just wants to do the best thing for the little creature he finds - Ponyo has such a sense of warmth as a result.

Like most Miyazaki films, Ponyo is a beautiful depiction of the natural world; the animation reflects the riches of nature but combines this with an unpredictable, surreal supernatural magic that really hypnotizes.

Usually within Miyazaki films there is some sort of mystical deity representing the voice of nature - which is the stroke of genius Miyazaki films pull. Given this is a film that, at some points, plays around with the never more topical subject of rising sea levels, you expect a more defined environmental message within the film. The sea does have a deity - commandingly voiced by Liam Neeson - who does muse on the importance of keeping nature in balance as well as the apathy shown by mankind towards the fragility of the big blue, but the ecological message here is less pronounced and is more of an undercurrent as what exactly causes the seas to rise exists only within the mythology of the film.

Curiously, within the film, the rising sea levels are depicted as not a problem but a liberating change that allows the characters to calmly float around on boats. Interestingly, Ponyo has a somewhat romantic vision of rising sea levels that prompts some striking imagery, like sea creatures swimming along road sides and a village adapting to the radical changes in the environment with positivity.

The Disney Club-friendly vocal casting of Miley Cyrus' sister Noah and one of the Jonas brothers in the key child roles is rather jarring and only enhances the juvenile feeling of the story.Truth be told, the film works far better without the Western redub.Despite this, the original charm of the characters still shines through the glorious animation. Miyazaki is a true auteur and his latest film, whilst not as deep and clearly more palatable than his others, is still a breath of fresh air.

Kaleidoscopically colourful, inspired and mesmerizing, Miyazaki invigorates a familiar yarn with his vibrantly bizarre movie magic. Step into the unique realm of Ghibli, see the sea as you've never seen it before; Miyazaki is still riding high on a crest of a wave.

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