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At the Movies: Ponyo Ponyo ****:

Animation has a genius in their midst in Hayao Miyazaki,  a stubborn, relentless artist who insists on preserving the tradition of hand-drawn animation in the face of the the more popular digital technology.  With Ponyo, Miyazaki shunned the ease of having everything “smoothed over” to look more modern, as he’d done on Spirited Away, and allowed a film to be released without all of the tricks we’ve all become too accustomed to.  To that end, modern audiences might feel like there’s something very old fashioned looking about Ponyo.  But once they realize that it’s Miyazaki’s vision they will look at it a different way, and perhaps see the magnificence in it.

Ponyo is not an easy movie to watch.  For one thing, the story revolves around a little creature who is half-fish, half-girl — a yappy little thing who screams “HAM!” a little too loudly.  She falls in love with a boy who finds her in the sea and the film becomes a love story of sorts.  Ponyo wants to free herself from her undersea life, become human and spend eternity with the boy she loves.  It’s The Little Mermaid without the “pretty”. 

The American version of Ponyo is revoiced into English with actors like Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, and Cate Blanchett but there is no mistaking the Miyazaki touch and no mistaking the cultural differences between the Japanese culture and our own.  This makes it an enlightening experience for kids as well as a visual array of color and light.

Ponyo is probably more like Miyazaki’s Totoro than it is like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke – because it is geared more towards smaller children there isn’t a layering of plot or anything too scary.  Still, like all of his films there is a point where you must let go of what you know about conventional storytelling and let Miyazaki’s flourishing imagination take you away.

The one thing you do know is that you have no idea what’s going to happen next.  You are on land one minute, caught up in a violent rain storm the next, then you are undersea.  Nothing is predictable and nothing is all that familiar.  This is a rarity in films aimed at children, and a rarity in general.

If Ponyo goes slightly wrong it’s that Miyazaki has already set the bar higher than anyone else working in animation.  Spirited Away, with or without the computer alterations, is a flat out masterpiece, and Princess Mononoke remains one of the most bizarre and mesmerizing films this reviewer has ever seen.  To that end, fitting Ponyo into such an already great group of movies means that Ponyo will be viewed as somewhat less so.  For anyone who has no prior knowledge to Miyazaki, however, it will open many doors.

At first glance one might feel inclined to think Ponyo looks “fake,” but spend some time looking at it more carefully, now that you know the art of hand-drawn animation is at stake.  Computers can do almost everything better than we can.  Art, however, should be reserved for the human touch.

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