“Ponyo” animates old school

DIRECTED BY: Hayao Miyazaki’
STARRING:  Voice actors Noah Cyrus, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tiny Fey and Liam Neeson
RUN TIME:   101 minutes

The recent release of “Ponyo” on DVD gives viewers the opportunity to bravely explore films that aren’t the usual rental but still hold some of the big-name familiarity on which most movies tend to thrive on.

“Ponyo” tells the story of a goldfish who innocently falls in love with a human boy as only a five-year-old girl can. Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, “Hannah Montana”) doesn’t think about consequences or balances of power when she steals magic from her father to transform into a human herself. She only knows that she loves Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, “Jonas”).

While that description might seem a bit too simplistic or reminiscent of other stories (like “The Little Mermaid”), it doesn’t begin to describe the magic that takes place on screen. Granted this is the first film Hayao Miyazaki has made that is truly aimed at children, so it does have a more childlike storyline, but it holds adults just as riveted by its unpredictability. This is not a story that does what is expected of it.

That does not include the breathtaking imagery that the audience is inundated with. Perhaps even more flabbergasting than the fact that all of this work is hand-drawn is that the majority of the plot takes place at sea where audiences could quickly lose interest. Yet it is obvious that Miyazaki is intimately familiar with his subject matter. The ocean setting is so real one can almost smell the scent of salt and seaweed in the air.

Yet this realism doesn’t stop Miyazaki’s imagination from soaring. He creates prehistoric fish and fantastic scenes where fish swim on roads or through the tops of trees. The opening sequence alone is mind-boggling. There is no dialogue for quite some time, just the beautiful imagery of dancing, floating jellyfish that has to be seen to be believed.

In a time when computer animation and a push for box office success has swallowed up animated films in America and most of the world, Miyazaki’s work remains a bastion of artistic freedom. This is why he is considered a god among animators. He uses CGI sparingly, if at all. In fact, he disbanded his studio’s CGI unit to return to the total freedom of hand-drawn work for “Ponyo.”

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The American voice casting is nothing to sneeze at either. Cate Blanchett (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) as Gran Mamare, the sea goddess, is the perfect fit and Liam Neeson (“Taken”) plays her wizard lover and Ponyo’s father with sinister madness. That’s not counting Matt Damon (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), Tina Fey (“30 Rock”), or a long list of other recognizable names.

Miyazaki made a big splash in American cinemas with “Princess Mononoke” in 1999. His follow up film, “Spirited Away,” in 2001 was the first anime film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. His work has done so well internationally that his newest films are now being widely marketed by Disney, mainly thanks to Pixar’s John Lasseter.

Lasseter has become Miyazaki’s greatest spokesperson, gushing about the amazing work behind Miyazaki’s films and what an influence the man’s work had been at Pixar. He is one of the main reasons that Disney bought the foreign distribution rights to his work.

He still remains a relative unknown to the average American moviegoer. However, Miyazaki’s work is unlike anything else in theaters, even in Japan.