Oh, boy. This is going to cause controversy among the Ghibli Freaks:
Marshall and Kennedy are working with Toho and Walt Disney Pictures to release a "tweaked," A-list-voiced version of Ponyo in the United States on Aug. 14.
"We have a fantastic cast, ... from Tina Fey to Liam Neeson to Cloris Leachman to Matt Damon," Marshall said. "There will be a subtitled version on the DVD, but we are trying to say this is a new animated movie. It's not Japanese. It's just a fantastic story, so go see it so that we can try and expand it out of the specialized film world."
Marshall also revealed that the changes are in conjunction with the master animator to ensure his blessing. "We worked closely with Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki-san and [Toshio] Suzuki-san, who is the producer. We speak daily, and they have been very involved in everything. It's not a direct translation. We have tweaked the story so it is an understandable story for our audience. Melissa Matheson, who wrote E.T., came in and helped us shape the story. We are bringing all our resources and friends into this who have responded, as we have, to how wonderful these movies are."
I've been trying to find something to say about this subject all day, and I've personally gone back and forth on the issue. So it's definitely something that I'm still undecided about.
First of all, as longtime readers of this blog know, I am a fierce defender of protecting the original artists' work. I have no respect or patience for anything that smacks of censorship. And I am very often critical with script changes made to Miyazaki and Takahata's movies.
While Disney is forbidden by contract to edit a single frame of any Studio Ghibli film, they have much greater latitude with the English-language dubs. The offenses are great and small, ranging from simplifying words or phrases, to flattening out more complex themes, eliminating uncomfortable subjects or themes, altering the soundtrack, introducing new dialog, to even changing the ending of the movies.
To its credit, Disney's performance has been much better with later waves of DVD releases. Just watch the Disney dub for Castle in the Sky to see interference at its worst. They were much more respectful of Ghibli on the later DVDs. My Neighbor Totoro, thank heavens, was left practically untouched from its original Japanese soundtrack.
The last two Miyazaki features, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, are the most faithful dubs of all. These were produced under the close supervision of Pixar (UP director Pete Doctor was in charge of Howl's US dub). It's no surprise, then, that these are the finest animation dubs I've ever heard. There might be a line added here, a line there, but the script translators respected Miyazaki's vision and did not attempt to impose their own worldview. They didn't try to turn Sen and Howl into faceless, repressed Disney characters.
On the DVD front, Totoro is the most faithful by far, and it's a very enjoyable dub. The Japanese soundtrack is still superior, but that's because of the neorealist tradition of using non-actors for parts. The two sisters also sound very different, which is in keeping with their characters (each child takes after a different parent). I loved the chemistry the Fanning sisters brought to the US Totoro soundtrack, and having them share the recording booth results in more natural, honest performances.
The other Disney dubs range from acceptable to scandalous, depending on how far back you go. I really don't have time to go into details here, and I must admit some reluctance to go into depth on this topic. I don't want to get into a tear on subtitles vs. dubbing, just as I don't wish to bash Disney unfairly. My goal is to see Studio Ghibli find the widest possible audience, and as long as DVD and Blu-Ray allows for multiple audio soundtracks, we will all be happy.
Please, for the love of Elvis, don't get me on a tear about the Disney dubs. I still won't forgive them for kneecapping Porco Rosso. Ugh.
Which brings us to Ponyo. I think the issue at this point is that we don't know exactly what "tweaked" means. Are we talking about minor alterations for the sake of translating into American English? Are we talking about smoothing over purely cultural references that Western viewers wouldn't understand? Or are we talking about editing and censoring the original script?
I'm reminded of that episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa spent time at Grampa's retirement home. A censored version of "Gone With the Wind" is playing: "Frankly, my dear.....(I love you! Let's get married!)" And then a title card appears, saying the film was sanitized for old people. Didn't there use to be a war in this picture?
As an artist, I'm a fierce defender of the artist's vision. This can be a problem when dealing with the realities of the market, and Hollywood even more so. The struggle between art and commerce has broken even the greatest of filmmakers (see: Orson Welles), and it often appears that cynicism, schlock, and recycled trash pours out of our movie screens year after year. Who keeps giving Michael Bay money to make Transformers movies? How many times can you repackage the same stale romantic comedy? Why is everything riddled with loud explosions? Would it kill the suits to let a documentary play in the multiplex, in front of 2,000 screens?
This is where I must step back, and be sympathetic to Hollywood and their producers. This is a business, and despite the righteous fury of the artists, one simple fact remains supreme: Hollywood makes these movies because that's what sells. The public is far more willing to see a movie about giant transforming robots than, oh, Herner Wertzog's latest documentary on Antarctica and global warming. Them's the facts, kids.
Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, the American producers for Ponyo, have been brought in for one reason only: to help sell the Miyazaki movie and make it a hit. These are skilled veterans of the movie industry, having worked for many years with Steven Spielberg, the director who has tightroped the line between art and commerce better than anyone.
Marhsall and Kennedy were picked by Studio Ghibli specifically to break into the US market. There is a community of dedicated Ghibli Freaks here (helloooo!!), but it remains small. The greater public has yet to hear of Hayao Miyazaki, despite our best wishes, and that's due to...well, um...okay, I'll just say it. Most people are cattle. They won't touch anything that's new, different, unknown, or unique. They are easily conditioned to respond to the same stimuli again and again. C'mon, be honest: nearly every big-budget movie can be fit into a small handful of genres. You don't even need titles. Rom-Com! Gun movie! Fart jokes! Kiddie cartoon!
So this is our dilemma. We have a great movie by one of the world's great film artists, beloved around the world, but untouchable by the great masses who tend to vote for Presidents they wanted to have a beer with. These are not smart creatures, and until somebody writes a law putting LSD into the drinking water, they're gonna stay that way. Ugh, how terrible of me. Bad Toad, Bad Toad! I'll try to behave, honest.
Anyway, here is the dilemma. We have a great Miyazaki film that should be widely seen, but it's unconventional and different enough to perhaps scare the public away. What to do? How to sell it? How to present it? Studio Ghibli's movies are openly, gleefully Japanese, and are a product of that culture. How to present that to an isolated culture? How do you create a new market from ground zero?
These are the questions that inform the US Ponyo trailer. This is why it's a different trailer, very different, from the previews from Japan, France, and around the world. We are still introducing Hayao Miyazaki to the American moviegoer. And if we're going to make an honest stab at breaking out of the art-house niche, we need to make that greeting stick.
Marshall and Kennedy admit as such. They are fans themselves, and have their own experiences with introducing the quirky Japanese movies to friends and family. Now they have to use their considerable skills to fill 800 theaters with new fans, and hope those numbers can continue to rise in subsequent weeks.
This is why I am willing to give them some slack on Ponyo. I'm not happy that this isn't a "direct translation," but I do not yet know how indirect it is. If we're talking something on par with Mononoke (Eboshi's false "confession" at the end still rankles me) or Castle in the Sky (easily the worst offender) then I'll start complaining. But not a moment before. Until then, I rest my trust in these people to do the best job they can.
I am looking forward to watching Ponyo in a packed theater. That and a democratic Iran. I'm hoping at least one wish gets fulfilled.