Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Excellent Take On The Little Mermaid

Acclaimed anime master Hayao Miyazaki returns for his ninth animated feature with Ponyo, which deals with a friendship between a five-year-old boy and a goldfish princess that yearns to be human. The daughter of the king of the ocean, Ponyo is no ordinary goldfish -- she has all the magic of the sea at her disposal. But when five year old Sosuke befriends the spunky little fish near the seaside home he shares with his mother and father, a special connection sparks between the two children, and Ponyo becomes determined to become human. Transforming into a little girl, Ponyo shows up at Sosuke's doorstep, delighted to make herself at home with her new land-dwelling family. But having a magical fish princess walking around on dry land begins setting the mystical balance of the world off kilter, and even though the innocent love Ponyo feels for her dear friend is strong, it will take some help from the greatest powers in the ocean to make things right again.

Ponyo, the star of Hayao Miyazaki's new animated feature, is a young goldfish – although it's unlikely you will be able to tell just by looking. She has no recognisable fishy characteristics such as fins and a tail. All she has in common with the real thing are her large round eyes. Miyazaki has never let himself be constrained by naturalism. With earlier films, such as his 2003 Oscar winner Spirited Away, he has endeared himself to audiences, as well as his peers in the animated feature business, by the strangeness of the fantasy worlds he's created. Manga traditions have some influence on his style but the defining touches are all his own. These worlds, however, have a lot to say about the health of this one, for he's always been a staunch environmentalist. And more often than not, the children who play the hero in his films are girls. Ponyo is another example, for she's his version of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid. Her dearest wish is to become human. That doesn't quite sum her up, however, since there's not a trace of Danish melancholy about her. Filtered through Miyazaki's robust vision, mermaid has become force of nature. The action begins when she ventures too close to the ocean's surface. She's swept up in a trawler's net and becomes tightly wedged in a discarded glass jar. By the time the jar has drifted free of the net and bobbed towards the shore, she's close to being asphyxiated. Then, just in time, she's spotted by Sosuke, a five-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Lisa, and father, Koichi, a ship's officer, in a house at the top of a cliff. He takes her home, the two of them bond and when the time comes for her to return to the sea, she doesn't want to go. She's resolved to turn herself into a human girl and since her father is a wizard and her mother a sea goddess, she has access to magic powerful enough to make her desire come true.

One of Miyazaki's greatest fans is Pixar's John Lasseter, who has produced an English language version of the film, just as he did with some of the director's earlier work. The line-up of voices includes Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Lily Tomlin, while Ponyo is voiced by Miley Cyrus's younger sister, Noah, and Sosuke by Frankie Jonas, whose siblings make up the Jonas Brothers. In any case, Ponyo doesn't need a voice to make herself understood. She's a great clown who takes an anarchistic delight in having put the natural world out of whack when her act of transformation for her defection from the undersea world brings on a tsunami. The story is anchored by Sosuke and his life in the clifftop house with his mother, who works at the local nursing home, where three spirited old ladies further ramp up the comedy. It's one of Miyazaki's funniest and most intimate films so far, partly because of the engaging matter-of-factness with which he marries the extravagantly fantastic with the comforting realities of everyday life. In his view, their happy co-existence makes the world go round. This is, hands down, the best animated movie so far this year. It gets a strong 5 on my "Go See" scale.

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