Nothing Fishy about Ponyo

28-Aug-09 10:38 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

It's been a good year for animation. Early in 2009, we had the phenomenal Coraline, a technically brilliant stop-motion that provided a chilling horror experience without being inappropriate for its target audience. Later, we received Up, a melancholy but still excellent movie that lives up to the high standard that past Pixar productions have set. Now, we have the wonderful Ponyo, the newest title from the most respected animator in the world today, Hayao Miyazaki.

Ponyo's plot is very heavily influenced on the classic tale of The Little Mermaid. It's a simple tale: the fish, Ponyo, meets a human boy, falls in love, and becomes a human. There are a few complications — Ponyo's father dislikes humanity, Ponyo's transformation upsets the balance of nature — but on the whole, the plot never gets much more complicated than the simple friendship of two children that forms its base.

Ponyo is geared towards smaller children — my 8-year old and 20-month old daughters both greatly enjoyed it — but there's much to be enjoyed by older viewers as well. The animation quality is phenomenal, with a heavy storm providing many especially spectacular moments. Characterization is well done and the film is filled with gentle humor that does not rely on awkwardly inserted pop culture humor like so many lesser animated films use.

The English localization of this originally Japanese movie is respectable. Of all of the voice actors, the only one I had any issues with Liam Neeson, not because he did a bad job but because his voice seemed at odds with his character's appearance. That's the only minor quibble I had; the rest of the cast fits perfectly and does an excellent job with the voices.

All in all, I highly recommend Ponyo to children as well as adults who appreciate beautiful artwork and simple but cute stories. Audiences looking for something darker and deeper like some of Miyazaki's earlier work such as Princess Mononoke may wish to look elsewhere. If you're still not sure, see the trailer after the break.

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Speedy Delivery!

03-Feb-08 10:02 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 5 comments.

Though I've rarely met an anime I liked, there are exceptions; a year ago yesterday, I wrote about my positive (if somewhat confusing) experience with Howl's Moving Castle. Though I liked Howl's quirky characters and amusing situations, and the Japanese style of animation is undeniably beautiful, it and the plots are usually too abstract for my tastes. No matter how many times I tried, I continuously failed to see the appeal.

Part of my problem was that, in seeking out representatives of this genre, I'd glommed onto titles that were all by the same writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki. I didn't realize that all the big-name titles I'd heard about, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, shared more popularity, so it made sense that if I didn't like the styles and motifs of one film, I'd find them to be common among all his films. I again succumbed to that same ignorance when I recently, accidentally watched another Miyazaki movie — but this time with surprisingly different results.

And really, what's not to like about Kiki's Delivery Service? Predating the other Miyazaki films I'd seen by a decade, this anime tells of a teenaged girl who leaves home as part of a one-year independent study on the path to become a full-blown witch. As rare as such women are in this fantasy world, each is still unique by taking on a special skill, such as divination or potion-brewing. But inquisitive and endearingly awkward Kiki is practiced only in flight, a trait common to all witches. In her eager attempts to capitalize on her few strengths, she finds herself partnered with a matronly baker who needs a delivery girl. Thus is born Kiki's Delivery Service.

The charm of the film is in its inherent innocence and marvel. Kiki is a sufficiently uncommon that everyone around her is in awe of the flying girl — while flight is the only thing Kiki takes for granted. Truly a country mouse, she must adapt to living in a city, fending off the attention of boys, and being on her own: in short, the trials and tribulations of growing up. She optimistically assumes the best in people and is rarely disappointed — but when she is, it's absolutely devastating. Just as Kiki brings out the best in others, the audience finds themselves immediately sympathetic when anything should trouble this girl. It's a simple tale that lacks the politics, antagonism, machinations, or complications that mark Miyazaki's later work.

I'm always impressed by the big-name talent willing to lend their voices to these niche projects, and Kiki is no exception. The protagonist herself is played by a young Kirsten Dunst (always the damsel in distress!), while Debbie Reynolds and Janeane Garofalo voice a pair of guardians. The late Phil Hartman plays Kiki's cat, Jiji, with the same wry pessimism that Billy Crystal to a similar role in Howl's Moving Castle.

Kiki's Delivery Service is a funny, sweet film that inspires some of the same wonder as the original Superman: you will believe a witch can fly. And if anime still isn't your thing, the 1989 film will reportedly be adapted to a live-action movie for a 2009 release.

Domo Arigato

02-Feb-07 4:41 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 6 comments.

In seeking meaningful animated films, I was recommend to watch Howl's Moving Castle, a movie about a young wizard named Howl who roams the countryside in a quadruped mansion. When a storegirl is unprovokingly cursed to be four times her age, she seeks Howl's help in breaking the curse. Hilarity ensues.

I found much to enjoy about this film. Despite aging literally overnight, Sophie adapts to the role of a crotchety oldtimer amusingly well. More so than her and Howl's central performances, though, the supporting characters steal the show. A bouncing, mute scarecrow nicknamed Turniphead always lends a helping hand, imbuing himself with more personality than many spiky-haired protagonists. But it's Billy Crystal as a Muppet-like, hearthbound fire demon who's far more enjoyable than any of his screen brethren. His quirky, animated expressions, enthusiastic exclamations, and near-constant bemoaning of his situation are very much in character.

Howl wasn't a great film, though — just average… which still makes it one of the best anime I've ever seen. Yes, this film, published in America by Disney, is a product of Japanese animation and the eccentricity that is its hallmark. I'm sure I'll receive many a rotten tomato for this admission (sorry Arc — Alissa), but I've just never been able to penetrate or comprehend the genre.

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