REVIEW: DVD Release: Ponyo

Film: Ponyo
Release date: 7th June 2010
Certificate: U
Running time: 97 mins
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Jôji Tokoro
Genre: Anime
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Japan

Studio Ghibli has made an international name for itself, and Director Miyazaki in particular, as one of the world's finest animation houses, rivalling Disney in animation and Pixar in storytelling. Ponyo, or more accurately Ponyo on the cliff by the sea, is Miyazaki's latest offering, and tempts with his hallmark love of fantasy and wonder.

Ponyo is the story of The Little Mermaid, Japanese style. Ponyo is a fish along with many sisters. Her father is the wizard Fujimoto, and her mother Granmamare is a Goddess. Ponyo has a desire to see the world and escapes from her Father one day while he travels in his submarine. When she reaches the surface, Ponyo is caught up in a garbage trawler and saved by Sosuke, the boy from the cliff. Ponyo falls in love with Sosuke.

Fujimoto sends waves to save Ponyo from the humans, and eventually gets her back. But Ponyo has tasted the blood of a human, and this gives her the power to become human also. She escapes from Fujimoto again and steals his magic, upsetting his potions in the process and spilling them into the sea. Ponyo, now fully human, uses the power of the sea to reunite her with Sosuke.

But there is now an imbalance in the world which will destroy it. Sosuke and Ponyo wake to find the world underwater. Ponyo uses her magic to turn Sosuke's toy boat into a little steamer and they journey to find Sosuke's mother. As they travel, Ponyo's magic runs out and she returns to being a fish. Sosuke saves her again, and they find his mother, Granmamare and Fujimoto together under the water. The only way to save the world is for Sosuke to fall in love with Ponyo…

As always with Studio Ghibli, the animation is unbelievably beautiful in ways that Disney and Pixar will never equal, for differing reasons. Pixar, for all its clever technology, will never produce animation with this much heart and soul, and Disney simply don’t have the imagination. If nothing else, Ponyo proves beyond all doubt that hand drawn 2D animation can be as good as anything done on a computer in however many dimensions you care to mention. Of particular note is the mid-film set piece. A simple in concept, yet truly spectacular scene as Ponyo rides her brothers and sisters, now transformed into giant fish, over the sea and up onto the cliff, as Sosuke's mother drives perilously fast around hairpin bends to escape the onrushing flood. It's a staggering achievement that ranks as some of the best high energy animation in any animated film, ever.

However, there is more to a film than just animation. We expect nothing less than perfection from Studio Ghibli. But does the film stand up to its previous offerings? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Make no mistake, this is a film with enough heart to capture even the hardest cynic, but flaws do exist in the film, and they lie with the storytelling. When we first meet Fujimoto, he is a wizard who desires to wipe out humanity and return extinct animals to the sea - a character trait that is never mentioned again. While this is a mere niggle to an adult, and won't even be noticed by the majority of children watching the film, it does point to the fact that the plot is not as watertight as it ought to be. Another little niggle involves Sosuke's father, who out at sea finds hundreds of ships all thrown together in a beautifully animated scene, but one that goes nowhere. It's unfortunate, but it is just shabby storytelling. There's no excuse for a script that introduces plot elements only to subsequently ignore them completely.

As well as losing entire strands of character and story development, the script also neglects to adequately frame the story that is seen. The viewer is never entirely sure of the nature of the oncoming catastrophe. Is it down to Fujimotos magic elixirs spilling into the ocean? The logical reason that the animation supports, or is it because a fish has become a human? Something the script suggests, but without rhyme or reason.

Despite these niggles, Ponyo succeeds because it's a heart rather than a head film. The narrative may be of variable quality, but the characterisation is perfect. Sosuke and Ponyo will capture even the hardest of hearts. Both characters are adorable and beautifully brought to life. Sosuke's mother Lisa is grounded in the real world of elderly care but equally well created. Children will probably want to watch with the English dub, and this too is excellent, with actors like Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson on board, all doing excellent jobs.

Ponyo is an outstanding feat of animation, let down somewhat by a less than perfect script. But these problems are not fatal flaws and there is much to enjoy. A feast for the senses that everyone should love. PE

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