Ponyo – DVD Review

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A gentle fable that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.

One of the nicest perks of reviewing DVDs is the occasional arrival of a title that you may well never have sought out on your own. It might be because of the genre or the subject matter, or simply because it slipped under the radar. Master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s PONYO definitely falls into that category: a gentle fable inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.

When we first meet Brunhilde, she’s just one of many tiny goldfish living under the strict thumb of her father, Fujimoto, an unusual Nemo-like figure with magical powers who operates out of a flipper-powered submarine in a quest to “keep the oceans in balance”. He carries a deep mistrust for mankind, and keeps his children as far from human influence as possible. One day, the ever-curious Brunhilde strays from the rest of her family and winds up being trapped in a glass jar that floats to a coastal fishing town, where it’s spotted by 5-year-old Sosuke, who frees the fish but cuts his hand in the process. Sosuke renames Brunhilde Ponyo; she repays his kindness by licking the wound, causing it to heal almost instantly. This forms an unbreakable bond between the two, leading Ponyo to summon up all of her magic to transform herself into a human, separating herself from the sea forever.

The plot might sound paper thin, but Ponyo is as much about the fine details as the big picture. Miyazaki clearly takes great pleasure in illuminating small moments: Ponyo’s excited first reactions to the world in her new human body all center around little things, whether being hot or cold, or squealing with delight at each flavor of the simple meals prepared by Sosuke’s mother. There is a notion that Ponyo is one of Miyazaki’s lesser efforts; this feeling could have its roots in the common ground it shares with the Disney hit of 20 years ago, THE LITTLE MERMAID (based on the same source material), or the fact that the plot has little in the way of the traditional good vs. evil conflict that we expect in children’s fare.

Ponyo is a film about wonder and discovery, and so gentle and sweet that one half-expects it to evaporate before our eyes. Amazingly, Miyazaki doesn’t let Disney’s immensely popular film of Anderson’s tale influence ether the animation or characterization – a much more difficult task than it sounds – but instead creates his own world, as far from the 1989 Disney film as it is from the large mass of cheap-jack Japanese anime (though certain character designs – particularly the gaunt, long-haired Fujimoto, do have their roots in the more traditional elements of the genre).

The story is seen through the eyes of the children, creating a film with somewhat unique worldview. This isn’t a story fraught with danger, nor are there plots to kill or kidnap; when Ponyo’s father comes looking for her, it’s out of love and a genuine fear for her safety among the humans who have been polluting the oceans. Miyazaki also earns points for his tactful handling of the story’s “green” messages: he never bashes you over the head with hectoring diatribes about ecology; a simple shot of the tons of man-made pollution that is drudged up from the ocean floor does it all without saying a word.

Ponyo (2009)

Ponyo rides the waves in the film's most technically impressive scene

Disney’s Blu-Ray is, as expected, absolutely breathtaking. While traditional “analog” animation is never going to “pop” in HD the way that Pixar’s all-digital films will, Ponyo’s hand-drawn images have a depth and weight that few other animated titles can match. Obviously, water imagery plays a central role, and Miyazaki’s use of different variations of the color blue is astounding. The film’s most technically impressive scene – Ponyo’s return to the seaside town riding a series of magical, rolling waves (trust us, it makes sense when you’re watching it) – should be enough to drag Blu-ray resisters happily into the HD arena.

The main audio track is a lossless DTS English dub track, with a French language track present in a lower quality 5.1 mix. Now, we’ve seen other reviews that mention a Japanese 5.1 mix as well (and the disc jacket seems to confirm its presence); however, we were unable to locate it, either within the menu or by cycling through the tracks using the audio button. Unless we hear different from Disney, we’ll have to count this as a very unusual defect. The furor over the dubbing of animation is, for us, one of the ultimate non-issues of home video. While we understand perfectly the desire to preserve the performance of the original actors in a live-action film, we can’t imagine anyone getting their knickers in a twist over dubbed animation. The idea of watching a film with this level of visual artistry and spending most of the time concentrating on the subtitles at the bottom of the screen feels utterly ridiculous to us. Great care has obviously been taken with the English cast, and one would never know that they were not the original voices.

As with other premiere animated titles on Disney Blu-Ray, Ponyo is outfitted with quite a few special features, most of which are presented in HD. We enjoyed the optional opening, “Meet Ponyo,” which briefly outlines the relationship between Disney and Miyazaki’s home, Studio Ghibli – something that’s even further fleshed out in “The World of Ghibli,” an interactive look at some of the studio’s other titles, including Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. As for the rest:

  • “A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter” is exactly what is says, a 4-minute long chat between the Pixar chief and Miyazaki, in which they discuss some of the specific design elements of Ponyo.
  • “Creating Ponyo” features Miyazaki discussing his intentions in making the film, specifically tailoring it to younger children. “Ponyo and Fujimoto” concentrates on the relationship between father and daughter.
  • “The Nursery” focuses on the real nursery that Miyazaki opened at the studio.
  • “Producer’s Perspective” gives an overview of the entire production process.
  • “The Locations of Ponyo” – the longest featurette – takes us on a Ghibli retreat to a small seaside town that helped inspire the artwork and tone.
  • “Scoring Miyazaki” walks us through the scoring process for Ponyo and several other Ghibli titles.
  • “Behind the Microphone” gives us a BTS look at the performance of the English dub track.

The extras are rounded out by an assortment of trailers for Ponyo, including several from the original Japanese release.

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About the Author

Drew Fitzpatrick

By day, Drew Fitzpatrick toils at publishing in the black heart of Manhattan. But by night, he dons a pair of fetishistic black leather gloves and grinds out the "Internet’s only horror-themed Blog": The Blood-Spattered Scribe.

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