Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ponyo; Not insane enough, but not sane enough either

Ponyo is actually the first Studio Ghibli film I can remember seeing in a cinema, and it's easily the weakest Ghibli I've watched all the way through. Miyazaki is a genius of sorts, but genius usually gets sloppy at some point and Ponyo is weirdly disappointing in ways I didn't expect. The biggest surprise is the look of the film; Miyazaki's earlier work was lush in its detail (or maybe seeing it on a TV makes it look more intense than a cinema screen, though I doubt that) and Ponyo is quite sketchy, which made me all the more surprised to see that it's actually got more drawing in it than any previous Ghibli film. Somehow all that extra work doesn't translate into visual richness although it was easy to see that this was what Miyazaki had wanted.

The other disappointment is how incoherent it all is. There's a perfectly serviceable a-story about a little boy and a fish who wants to be a little girl. It's the b-story that left me thinking that either Miyazaki had taken too many drugs or I hadn't taken anything like enough. As long as the focus stays on Sesuke and Ponyo, the boy and fish girl, everything's fine - the voice acting is as good as it can be when you're trying to do children and the look is spot on, very reminiscent of Totoro, which is in some ways Miyazaki's most emotionally satisfying film (Porco Rosso is tons more fun, but Totoro pulls off the highly unusual film feat of making a movie about how childhood feels, and is thus a much more important film). When the movie opens out to the ocean and the overarching message-plot, boy howdy do things go right off the damn rails.

It's not that I expect three act structures and napkin-ready high-concept plotting from Miyazaki. On his best days he's bonkers and allusive and probably only fully comprehensible to Japanese natives. The pace of his story telling almost always seems off from a western perspective, and he never seems to feel any need to explain anything fully or resolve all of his plot points. And most of his films have a way of going off the rails somewhere in the third act; I defy anyone to tell me Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle maintain a continuous tone or anything approaching narrative sense, but by the time they go completely bonkers you've kind of stopped worrying about conventional plotting and you're just letting it pull you along. Ponyo does not have that going for it.

It's not that I couldn't see what the b-plot was getting at; man's destroying the oceans, magic can't be allowed to cross from the ocean to land. It's just that the way it was handled in the plot development was so disjointed and cursory. When Ponyo's father announces that the world will come to an end if Ponyo doesn't turn back into a fish, it comes out of nowhere and there's no explanation at all for it. We've seen any amount of big scenes of oceanic mayhem, but how is it supposed to hang together? I've had dreams which made a lot more sense.

It doesn't help that Captain Exposition for the whole operation is Ponyo's dad, as voiced by Liam Neeson. Most of the voice work is done by two kids whose names I didn't catch or care about and Tina Fey playing Sesuke's mother. And they're believable the whole way - they sound like what they're saying is stuff that the people we can see would say. Liam is, by comparison, burdened with pretty terrible lines and he phones them in. I think it's partly due to those factors that the film just stalls every time his character's on screen.

I'm not sorry I saw it - no time spent watching Ghibli animation is ever completely wasted - but I think it's the first time I've felt disappointed at the end of a Miyazaki film. Mind you, it could have been Porco Rosso II and I'd still have wanted to maim someone for the closing song, which - well, Alvin and the Chipmunks would have backed away slowly, shaking their heads.

Stray thoughts; Sesuke's mother is the worst driver in the whole world; every time they were in a car, I expected her and Sesuke to get smeared all over a crash barrier. Somehow it never happened and I'm not sure why she had to drive so erratically. It was obviously supposed to be a character beat, but it didn't relate to anything else the character did. Ponyo goes from fish to human because she drinks a drop of human blood, so this was actually a movie about magical fish vampires. Despite this, the audience was not full of detoxing Edward and Bella junkies. What is it about Miyazaki and bloomers? I get it that there are problems with showing small children running around in short skirts, but a five year old child in bloomers that look like the world's biggest nappies? There has to be another way.

Finally, if there's one overarching drawback of going to a children's movie, it's got to be the trailers for other children's movies. It was deeply depressing to watch the trailer for Nannie McPhee II, Electric Nanny-loo and realise that in order to cover her bills one of the most radiant and intelligent English actresses of her generation has to cover her face in fake warts and snaggle teeth and act like a Scottish troll version of Mary Poppins. Coming off the back of watching Emma Thompson in her breakout role as Harriet Pringle, seeing her as the ugliest thing in a movie trailer which opens with a huge pile of manure - not edifying. If it hadn't been for that horrible thought, McPhee wouldn't even have been worst trailer of the evening (hard call - Cats and Dogs II, the Return of Kitty Galore or Shrek 4?) John said that the upside of movies that bad is that they'll make children read books; I pointed out that it's not likely that they'll be reading books after they've poked out their own eyes in horror. Most kids movies in the next 12 months are going to be in 3-D, although it's very far from clear why. Mind you the point of 3-D eludes me at the best of times. I've thought it over; Shrek 4 is the worst idea. Having had the brainwave of imagining a world without Shrek in it, the film-makers then went ahead and made a movie that still HAS Shrek in it. When you've had an idea as good as "a world without Shrek", you ought to run with it.

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