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“Ponyo” celebrates childhood, magic, the beauty of nature and … oh, yeah … ham

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“Ponyo” celebrates childhood, magic, the beauty of nature and … oh, yeah … ham

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If you’re going to see “Ponyo” and expecting yet another ambitious animated feature like “Spirited Away ” and/or “Princess Mononoke,” you may be in for a bit of a disappointment.

Hayo Miyazaki's Ponyo poster
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. /
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

This time around, Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki has crafted a far smaller, sweeter film. A celebration of childhood friendship, the beauty of nature and magic, “Ponyo” is much more in the style of Miyazaki’s 1988 masterwork, “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Hayo Miyazaki's Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

A modern day riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” “Ponyo” tells the tale of a goldfish (voiced by Noah Cyrus) who slips away from her father – an undersea wizard named Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) – so that she can then get a taste of freedom.

Hayo Miyazaki's Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

But what Ponyo winds up tasting instead is ham. Which the little goldfish snatches out of a sandwich that Sosuke (i.e. the 5-year-old boy who rescue Ponyo when she gets her head stuck inside of a discarded jar. Who -- FYI -- is voiced by Frankie Jonas) is dangling over the green pail that this magical creature is temporarily calling home. And once this goldfish gobbles down that luncheon meat … That’s all she wrote. All Ponyo wants to do then is become human and spend the rest of her days at Sosuke’s side.

Miyazaki's Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

Which brings us to “Ponyo” ‘s true high point. When – with the help of her goldfish brothers & sisters – Ponyo breaks free of Fujimoto’s clutches. Then – having made use of his magic potions in order to transform herself into a little girl – Ponyo then races along on the wavetops in the middle of this raging ocean storm. Determined to be re-united with the little boy who shared his ham sandwich with her.

Miyazaki's Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

To be honest, words can’t describe the wonders to be found in this particular sequence in the motion picture. To see Sosuke (who’s seated inside of his mother’s car. Which is desperately racing to try & keep ahead of the storm surge) look out the window and spy Ponyo running on top of those waves … It’s a truly magical moment. The sort of scene that makes you wish “Ponyo” were already available for purchase on DVD. So that you could then experience the pleasure of watching this sequence over & over & over again.

Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, there are other pleasures to be found in “Ponyo.” Chief among them being how beautifully animated Sosuke is. I’m not sure who actually supervised the animation of this character in the picture (“Ponyo” closing credits – while cute & colorful – aren’t exactly informative). But clearly this animator / team of artists closely observed how real 5-year-old boys move and behave. Which helps to ground this colorful fantasy in an emotional reality.

Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

And speaking of color … Miyazaki’s bold use of color & different painting styles give “Ponyo” a truly unique look & feel. EX: When this movie’s scenes are set in the human world, Hayao has his background painters use watercolors. Which gives the sequences set on land a softer, safer, more child-like feel. Whereas when the little girl & Fujimoto are under the ocean, the colors that Miyazaki uses in these parts of “Ponyo” are far darker & richer. Suggesting that the sea is a much more dangerous & magical place than the world up above.

Miyazaki's Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

The folks at Walt Disney Pictures have done a beautiful job of getting this 2008 Studio Ghibli release ready for its North American debut. First by hiring “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison to prep this movie’s English-language adaption and then by hiring seasoned performers like Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin and Betty White to provide voices for the picture. The Mouse has also put all of its marketing might behind “Ponyo.” With Mickey’s obvious goal here being to rack up the highest ever North American gross for a new Hayao Miyazaki film.

Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

Will Mickey’s extra effort actually pay off? Given how charming “Ponyo” is, I can’t help but think that moviegoers in the U.S. will talk up this picture after they’ve seen it. Which bodes well, box office-wise.

Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

But the bigger question is – given that “Ponyo” is clearly aimed for a younger audience – will adults also embrace this new Miyazaki movie? That I can’t tell you. All I know is that I myself plan on catching this Studio Ghibli film a second time while it’s still out in theaters.

Hayo Miyazaki's Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

Only this time around, I’ll know to bring some ham with me.

Ponyo
Copyright 2008 Nibariki-GNDHDDT. All Rights Reserved

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