Review: Ponyo (Dub) – 88%

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Scores
Animation: 90%
Music: 95%
Voice Acting (dub): 85%
Story: 89%
Overall: 88%

See explanation of scores below.

Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki’s most joyous film since Porco Rosso, and the purest evocation of childhood he’s done since My Neighbor Totoro. After flirting with darker and more surreal themes in the past several films since Princess Mononoke, he has returned to deliver a delightful film that entertained the young adult audience at the premiere and should please even the youngest children.

Ponyo represents the second Miyazaki film that is an adaptation (of sorts)–this is his take on “The Little Mermaid” story of Hans Christian Andersen. (His last film, the somewhat disappointing Howl’s Moving Castle, is an adaptation of the novel by Diana Wynn Jones.) Disney, of course, has already left a large stamp on the story themselves, and what Miyazaki contributes to his version is a somewhat different cultural sensibility to Disney’s very American “follow your dreams and discover your true self” spin on the tale. This one is more about learning to love someone unconditionally, no matter who or what form he or she is, and the blessing of the parents and of the older generation is key to the conclusion of the film. The moral of the story is simple and heartwarming, and delivered without the accretion of competing themes (like the anti-war themes of Howl, and the somewhat anti-climactic ending of Spirited Away). Perhaps the decision to aim this film at young children helped Miyazaki focus.

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Ponyo, the “Ariel” of this story who starts as a goldfish and becomes a three- or four-year-old girl, is Miyazaki’s most charming little child since Mei, the little sister in Totoro. Even with the dub, it was apparent from the writing and the script that he has not lost his feel for capturing the moods and movements of little children. The main boy, Sousuke, acts a little older than Ponyo, is voiced by a Jonas brother and also does a fine job capturing the natural curiosity and adventurousness of a boy his age. It’s interesting how though the title of the movie is ostensibly about Ponyo, in many ways the film is more about him and his mother (voiced by Tina Fey), and the choices they make. The plot hinges on his decisions, and it is he who sometimes has to comfort his mother as his father is a bit absentee.

As for music and animation quality: the Joe Hisaishi soundtrack is, for some reason, more soaring than usual, and perhaps the best phrase I can think of to describe the feel of this movie is “cute grandeur.” Many choral scenes abound, as well as beautifully animated underwater scenes that teem with jellyfish, fish, manatees, and a huge variety of sea creatures. (In some ways this feels like both an homage to similar famous scenes in Disney’s The Little Mermaid as well as Pixar’s Finding Nemo.) The animation actually feels simpler than the overly elaborate sets of both Howl and Spirited Away; Miyazaki proudly and defiantly noted in his introduction at the premiere that this movie was all produced by a pencil in 2D, and that he wanted computers to completely stay out of it. He might have been a little grumpy in saying it, but I have to say: it works. It is a work of visual beauty, replacing the flight scenes for which he is famous with underwater footage that is utterly unique and captivating, and above all, alive. No less than John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and Disney Animation, said that he has never seen water animated such before.

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The premiere we watched is of the American dub, which features prominent A-list voice talent: Liam Neeson plays Ponyo’s father, Cate Blanchett as her mother, and Sousuke’s mother is played by Tina Fey. Liam Neeson’s gravelly, British-accented voice works for the most part, though the way he delivers some of his lines about “bringing balance to the earth” sound faintly outlandish. Cate Blanchett doesn’t say too much, and as her character actually bears some resemblance to Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, her strikingly similar performance fits.

Tina Fey, alas, was somewhat disappointing. I say this as a fan of her work in 30 Rock. It may be due to my love of that show and my filtering of her voice through the lens of Liz Lemon, but I had some difficulty quite fully believing in her as the mother that seems to be portrayed in the film. There were moments where she sometimes seemed to be underacting (rather than overacting as many American dub actors are wont to do), not seeming to put a lot of emotion into her voice when the lines called for it. In one very memorable, hilarious scene involving Morse code signal lights, however, the Fey of “WHERE’S MY SANDWICH?” came out, and it was a delight to hear the unmistakable timbre of her comedic voice come out. The mother, Lisa, of the story is a richly drawn and believable character–devoted to service in taking care of the women at the old folks’ home, she is trying hard to balance work and home life, becomes exasperated and frustrated at times with her sailor husband, and tries her best to take care of both Sousuke and Ponyo–accepting Ponyo with surprising ease when she becomes a little girl. I felt Fey got 90% of the way there but was just…a little off at times. Maybe it was the pressure of recording for Ponyo during the day, and being Sarah Palin on SNL at night (as I heard on Daily Variety)? Those are two very different characters!

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Obviously, this film deserves a rewatch with the original Japanese audio and subtitles to see at least how Miyazaki imagined these characters sounding. However, the story and the core of the film was communicated more than adequately through the professional dub and it did not get in the way of the sheer delight and joy that Miyazaki wanted to convey. The “family film” is often maligned for being only suitable for kids, not least because it often talks down to them and throws bones to the adults in the form of cheesy pop culture references. Miyazaki has never trafficked in such things–he has always spoken to children at their level better than almost any filmmaker–and Ponyo shows that age has not tempted him in the least in that direction. May he never do so, or else we will not have treasures like this gem of a movie to make us all like giddy five-year-olds again.

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances

Animation: 90%. Simpler than some recent Ghibli outings–I sat close to the screen and it definitely feels “rougher” than the CGIfests that much modern anime has become. But I could see the strokes, the grain, of real live paint and colored pencil. This is a handcrafted work, and a work of real beauty, too; look especially at the way the waves are drawn, the seas creatures full of life, and the way the children move. Miyazaki’s eye for detail has not dimmed in the least.

Music: 95%. Joe Hisaishi, for such a “light” and child-like movie, has somehow managed to make it soar. Majestic choral sequences accompany journeys into the deep blue sea. It gives the film a sweep and grandeur that is both surprising and fitting: in short, it evokes the wonder of childhood which is at the heart of this film.

Voice Acting: 85%. This is a Disney dub, which means it’s going to be leagues better than the standard American anime voice acting dub. I don’t know what it is about film actors, but they always calibrate their voices with much more nuance than most American VAs for standard anime. This is no exception for Frankie Jonas (yes–a Jonas brother), who does not overact his role as a little boy. Ponyo is played by Noah Cyrus, Miley’s little sister, and while her voice sometimes grates to be honest, it grates the way a real 3 or 4 year old’s voice grates after a while. (This adds to the argument that real children should play children’s roles more often.) Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett do solid work as the parents of Ponyo, and I’ve noted the problems I have with Tina Fey’s performance above. Matt Damon essentially cameos as Sousuke’s absent father and doesn’t really get to say much. All in all, it’s a good job–there is no one like Billy Crystal almost ruining the dub for Howl last time around–and more than listenable. Especially compared to most American dubs.

Story: 89%. It’s a simple story, with most of its plot points taking its cues from The Little Mermaid, but turned into a Miyazaki-esque reflection about the importance of family, respecting your elders, and unconditional love. There were some slight pacing problems here and there (the movie almost felt over after its first third for some reason), and he does recycle a theme or two from Totoro (the lost mother subplot). These are minor blemishes on what is the most focused, sincere, and touching story he’s come up with in a good long while. I loved it.

Overall: 88% for the dub. At the end of the day, not much is lost, and probably nothing for the kids that are the primary audience for this film. It’s going to get the widest release of any Miyazaki film to date in a month, and it deserves it: I’m almost certain both kids and parents will discover the delight that Miyazaki at his best delivers. Even though Miyazaki professes to hate most anime, a film of this caliber may just create another new generation of fans, keeping the cons and websites like this one going for many more years to come. :)

9 thoughts on “Review: Ponyo (Dub) – 88%”

  1. I am contemplating on going to see this movie. Not sure if I would enjoy it, since I saw the Japanese several months ago and have enjoyed that version. Still have to say that Disney dubbing is not all that, I still can’t get over the fact on the Disney dubbing of Totoro was horribly done.

    Still have to wait until the dubbed version is released in the movies aye?

  2. I saw this movie subbed, yesterday, and loved it. That’s really all I have to say.

    Also, I didn’t think that Billy Crystal was bad in Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s one of my favorite movies.

  3. I thought ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ was an exquisite movie, even better than the book, which does not happen often. Your above analysis of it does not do it justice. Appreciate the movie for the music, the morals, the journey thrusting you back into the innocence of childhood, and the beautiful artwork, even if you don’t like the story or who was chosen to voice the characters.

  4. Hayao Miyazaki is a genius of his profession. His movies entice and awe the mind of those watching. The detail and beauty put into them make you want to jump from your seat into the movie itself. Ponyo is a perfectly amazing movie, I just saw it yesterday with my boyfriend. I find that Hayao’s movies bring out the child in you and make you feel young again. :)

  5. I have a 3 yr. old son who adores Ponyo!! We’ve (mostly me) watched this movies at least 20 times!! Kudos to the author for writing the review about this movie!! I enjoyed it! We’ve also watched Howl’s Moving Castle. What I’ve realized about that movie, (Howl’s Moving Castle) if you don’t sit and watch the entire movie, you will be lost and not understand it.

    1. That’s the thing with children, they like to watch things over and over again, huh? :) Miyazaki at his best always seems to understand children very well, and I think Ponyo was a good example of that, it reminded me of Totoro that way. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. I actually thought Howl’s was a bit disappointing, but that’s only relative to the many wonderful films he’s done. It was less a problem of understanding what was going on than I felt the characters weren’t very interesting. But to each his or her own.

  6. You’re a dumbass. Most dubs by actual VAs are leagues better than the prototypical dubs that Disney shits out, you elitist bastard. How do most typical dub actors overact? Explain. That’s a problem with the Japanese version, since the Japanese tend to overact(not that I mind) WAY more. Even Crispin Freeman’s Japanese actress friend said something along the lines of “You do anime dubs? Do you overact like the Japanese?” It’s actually English VAs who are more subtle(not better) than the Japanese counterparts. 2. Your elitism is showing. How are “typical dubs” bad? At LEAST the prototypical dub uses people, who are experienced, who are familiar with the process of ADR and are actually VOICE actors. The production value of a dub has nothing to do with its worth. The Big O/The Big O II’s dubs aren’t even close to the production value of any of the Disney dubs, yet they piston punch them away, because the script is CLOSER to the Japanese version than Disney’s lame ADR scripts, the voice actors are more EXPERIENCED and I trust Bandai Entertainment not to mess around with the songs and alter them. Pay and quality are mutually exclusive. You also consider Atlantis and Treasure Planet to be masterpieces over Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, right? Right? Idiot. 3. My complaints with your misconceptions link to something very interesting. The Japanese have huge gripes over the casting choices that Miyazaki has with the Japanese versions. A lack of actual voice actors, which leads flat acting. This is true for the dub. Finally, as the great Billy West says or an “talented voice actor” like you elitists would say, if these Hollywood A-Listers were judged by the same standards as actual VA talent and cast because something was made in mind with them, so they can be marketed as attractions, then none of them would have made it. Simple. We wouldn’t want these “typical dub actors” in live action, so why shouldn’t the same thing apply to these A-Listers? If you can prove me wrong, respond to this comment. Name me a single Ghibli dub which is better than Death Note’s, Akira’s(Geneon), Hellsing Ultimate’s, Tiger and Bunny’s, Fate/Zero and FLCL’s dubs in the form of script writing, voice acting and faithfulness to the original source. You cannot do it, because there isn’t a single one. :P

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