Movie Review – Ponyo : Calling It Like It Is

I can still remember watching the trailer for Spirited Away and being completely blown away. It was my first time I heard of Studio Ghibli and the director Hayao Miyazaki and I desperately wanted to see Spirited Away in the theater. I got my chance a couple months later in a small theater that had seen much better days; I and my one sister had the theater to ourselves as Miyazaki dazzled us.

That little decrepit theater held on long enough that when Howl’s Moving Castle came out I was able to go see it there. This time I brought my whole family along since they’d all fallen for Miyazaki’s movies as well. It didn’t quite wow me as much as Spirited Away but it was still a very good movie. I can still remember how thrilled I was when I realized that my most favorite voice actor, Crispin Freeman, had a little role amidst all those well-known Hollywood actors.

I missed watching Ponyo in the theaters for a variety of reasons but I still wanted to see it when it came out on DVD. I finally got the chance a month ago and here’s my review.

Final Grade: 5/12 – C+
Rewatchablity: 1/5 – Low; The only reason to ever rewatch this is to look at the pretty animation
Ending:
1.5/5 – Disappointing; Come on Studio Ghibli try a little
Animation: 5/5 – Epic; Studio Ghibli continues to show their godlike mastery of animation
Pros: Studio Ghibli continues to show that CG isn’t needed to make a visually stunning animated film; Ponyo is a fabulous character and the screen comes alive when she’s onscreen; great dub
Cons:
A very weak story that felt like it was thrown together from different parts of previous Studio Ghibli movies; outside of Ponyo, the characters where poorly fleshed out; world felt too flat and unrealistic which prevented even a small amount immersion of the viewer into the movie; the ending is so poorly done it deserves another mention for it’s horribleness

Story

The young Ponyo chafes under the overprotected eye of her father and decides to flee to the surface world after she meets a young boy and discovers the power of ham. The father doesn’t like this one bit and tries to keep them apart and is about as successful as you’d probably imagine he’d be considering the movie is called Ponyo.

Thoughts and impressions

I know there’s at least one person out there, at this point, wanting to know why I’m being overcritical on Ponyo. Believe me, I can sympathize with you; this is, after all, a Miyazaki movie and even if it’s not the next Spirited Away (what is) and it still is a pretty movie that has a cute, lovable character (Ponyo) and the movie is really aimed for children and not adult guys. The problem, I realized, is that Miyazaki is completely capable of creating a movie that has an interesting story, that’s told well, set in a realistic feeling world, with memorable characters, that feels original, and is as entertaining for adults is it for child. And by not being truthful about movies like Ponyo I lessen my praise for his works like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or My Neighbor Totoro because by coddling Ponyo, I’m saying that I don’t expect the same level of greatness from his films as other films.

If I had to use a single word to describe what’s wrong with the movie, I’d have to say “lazy”. Lazy doesn’t cover everything but it does catch most of the problems. There’s the apparent recycling of material from previous Studio Ghibli movies – the final test of the main character and the surreal flooded landscape coming from Spirited Away to name two examples. Ponyo’s dad is an example of the lazy characterization. Is he a mad scientist that’s gone crazy and someone who we should hate or is he a crusading eco-warrior that we should like or is just an overprotective father;  I don’t know and I don’t think Miyazaki knew either. And if he’s so worried about the environment why’d he have a bazillion kids, doesn’t he know they’ll consume precious resources?

Even more grievous is the lazy storytelling. Very little effort was expended in explaining and justifying why the events in the show happened and for what reason. For example, if the reason for the horrible flooding was because of some sort of imbalance when Ponyo decided to spend time on land then why wasn’t Ponyo’s father existence under the sea cause a similar imbalance the other way? The best example of lazy storytelling, however, was how the movie ended. Miyazaki introduced the idea of a test to see if Ponyo could stay on the land without causing an imbalance in nature but when we get to the actual test we find out that all the boy needs to pass the test is a declaration that he intends to watch over Ponyo. Seriously?!? A test is supposed to actually test something. If schools followed this principal then, for example, to get an A on a math test all the student would have to say is they intend to get an A and they’d receive an A. Who cares if the student actually knows the material or not.

And it’s truly a shame that Ponyo wasn’t a better movie because it completely wastes another gorgeous animation effort from Studio Ghibli. I love well done CG animation as much as the next person but there’s something almost magical about traditional, hand-drawn animation. The other thing really wasted was Ponyo herself. Even with my less-then-positive view of the movie, I can find no fault in her. With her sunny personality, laudable determination, and instant love of ham, she definitely does her absolute best to make the movie work. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years time that she has become one of the most well-liked characters of the Studio Ghibli movies.

Turning this movie over in my head, the one thought that keeps coming back to me is that I wonder if Studio Ghibli passed on fixing the problems of this movie because it was a Miyazaki movie and they didn’t want to correct him. I’d hate to think this was what happened but I can’t think of a better explanation  that explains the obvious deficiencies. In the end, even with all it’s problems, it’s still a cute movie and worth a single watch from fans of Studio Ghibli and fans of high quality animation. Hopefully, this was a single hiccup and Miyazaki will return with a good movie.

9 thoughts on “Movie Review – Ponyo : Calling It Like It Is”

  1. It feels (to me at least) that starting around Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s been driven to create wondrous worlds that just take your breath away, rendered through beautiful artwork and scenery. Characters are still pleasing, personality-wise like you said, but the solid storytelling isn’t quite on par with his previous works.

    That said, I did enjoy it for what it’s worth. The target audience might have been a bit younger than before, but it had its moments.

    If nothing else, at least the music remains good. Heh.

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  2. I’m a little bummed you disliked it, as I loved it. I definitely found it better then Howl’s Moving Castle. But I see the point of your side.

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  3. I get the feeling that you gave it too much logical thoughts…like a proper adult would do. I think this movie is cherishing the simplisity of childhood where even the worst disaster is a wondrous thing. The test in the end is easy…because it should be. It reflects that children are more willing to accept something that is different. All Ponyo need in order to live on land is someone who cares for her unconditionally, not caring about her origin.

    That’s just my thought 🙂

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  4. @everyone: thanks for the comments.

    @Janette: I wouldn’t say I disliked it so much as I was disappointed that Ponyo was no where close to earlier works from Miyazaki and upset that Studio Ghibli wouldn’t do some quality control before releasing it. Releasing sub-par animated movies was what finally got Disney and allowed newer companies like Pixar to take their place and that would be a shame if something similar happened to Studio Ghibli.

    Glad you liked the banner, I was going to totally do something else but I happened to see that picture and knew I needed to make it into my next banner.

    @zzeroparticle: Your right about the music, I had that Ponyo song stuck in my head for days. 🙂

    @Canne: Your probably right about over-thinking things but even then I still have the problem of why I’m over-thinking and consequently not liking Ponyo when some of Miyazaki’s other movies like My Neighbor Totoro are meant for the same age group and I didn’t have a problem them.

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  5. I kind of find this review hard to believe as Ponyo won five awards at the 8th annual Tokyo Anime Awards. The awards included “Anime of the year” and “Best domestic feature”. Miyazaki received the award for best director and best original story, and Noboru Yoshida received the award for best art direction. Also, the film won the awards for Animation of the Year and Outstanding Achievement in Music at the 32nd Japan Academy Prize. I really loved Ponyo for how simple it was; it gave me hope for when I become an animator. I know this comment is late, but I was googling for wallpapers when I ran into this.

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  6. Winning awards at places like the OSCARS, doesn’t really mean anything. An award is only as good as the people issuing them. Que Nobel Peace Prize.

    On the hand drawn pictures, static portraits I see in visual novels are often much more aesthetically appealing in terms of human dramatic potential than anime scroll screens. This is especially noteworthy in action sequences where light outlines and expressions are important to keep in perspective. Often times anime studios get it totally wrong when they try to show characters moving and we see the profile of the face and it is distorted in relation to the rest of the scene.

    A similar thing to what Steel hypothesized happened to George Lucas’ efforts in making Episodes 1-3. Everyone basically just followed along with Lucas’ crazy goals and aesthetic storytelling and visuals simply because he was George Lucas. That kind of false “justification” doesn’t make for substantial truth, because it’s based upon a social perception that isn’t real. It’s only real when people keep doing the circle dance. When the movies are released to the public, and we don’t have to do the circle dance, the truth comes out.

    The actors didn’t pipe up and tell Lucas they can’t act when all they see is a bunch of green background and cube blocks fit for a toddler with play around with. The story writers didn’t tell Lucas how messed up the romance was, the politics was, and how the war was just another excuse for to make pretty visual effects and dump money into the budget. Episodes 4-6 were made on a limited budget, with a lot of people with strong personalities inputting their particular slant into the story, characters, and plot. A lot of the stuff Lucas wanted to do back then, people basically put their foot down and said “it’s not feasible”. Well, now that it became “feasible” in Episode 1, we saw the real product out of that.

    I’m not a great fan of Miyazaki. I’ve seen most of his films, but I only rate them as good entertainment rather than great social or political or environmental commentary. The artwork and character designs don’t appeal to my sense of aesthetics. It is often weird and interesting to look upon though.

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  7. @Marcellus Mershon: Thanks for the comment. It’s great you question; I personally don’t put much stock into award picks or what critics say until said critic or awards body convinces me he/she/it/they know what they’re talking about (at least from my standpoint).

    As for the Tokyo Anime Awards, looking over the winners I notice certain tendencies in who wins that doesn’t inspire much faith about the Tokyo Anime Awards to me. Just one example, the complete lack of awards for the anime movie Redline pretty much renders those awards worthless.

    To be fair, I didn’t have a problem with either the animation or the music or the dubbing, I loved these aspects of Ponyo. What I didn’t mention in the review was that I happened to watch My Neighbor Totoro the night before watching Ponyo and having the two to compare side-by-side really brought out the flaws in the storytelling and characters of Ponyo. If I hadn’t seen them so close together, chances are I would have glossed over the flaws of Ponyo and would have ranked it higher.

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