Today, I made the trek up to the Edina Lagoon Theatre for my third viewing of Ponyo. When I finally hiked my way back, I thought I'd write my latest impressions down. I also decided to finally sit down and watch the Japanese DVD with subtitles. Not a bad way to wind up the weekend when you're tired out.
1) There was a solid turnout for Ponyo today. About 25-30 people arrived for the 4:15 pm show, mostly parents with their children. There were also some older kids and even couples. I was very impressed and happy to see so many in the theatre. If I remember, by the time I made my third and fourth showing for Howl's Moving Castle, I was pretty much the only one showing up.
2) Ponyo is expected to break $11 million after this weekend, which means it has broken Spirited Away's record. Yaayy! Great news, everyone! It appears that this movie has some legs, and word-of-mouth has played a role. It's just about impossible to get Americans to see a foreign movie in theatres, especially anime films. The only foreign animation films to gross higher than Ponyo and Spirited Away are the toy commercials - Pokemon and Digimon.
3) Ponyo looks absolutely spectacular on the big screen. No doubt the simpler, more iconic drawings are partly responsible for this. All of the Ghibli movies look better on 35mm film, and never more true than here. I'm also finding my patience for standard DVD wearing thin. Ponyo on DVD looks good, but it's nowhere near as good as a film print, and when I'm watching, all I can see are the flaws. It's a miracle that a feature-length movie can fit onto a tiny DVD in the first place. There are so many corners that have to be cut.
4) It goes without saying that Ponyo on Blu-Ray will be fantastic. If Ghibli manages to successfully port it to the high-definition format, we will have a certifiable killer-app for BD. I'm really interested in seeing how closely it will match the 35mm print.
5) The children in the audience were enraptured from start to finish, as with the previous shows I've attended. I have also noticed that the quiet, natural moments are the ones that capture their attention. Watching Ponyo as a little girl bounce around and run around the house really draws smiles from the kids. And those scenes of the dinosaur fish underwater draws ooh's and ahh's every time.
6) I continue to argue in defense of John Lasseter's US dub, but on my third viewing, parts of it are beginning to wear thin with me. Liam Neeson steals the show every time, and his performance is perfect. The two kids, Donny & Marie or whatever their names are, are very solid. They don't get on my nerves. Tiny Fey does sometimes get on my nerves. She has good moments and not-so-good moments.
7) Of all the movie roles for Kate Blanchett to become stereotyped in, why Lord of the Rings? Is she always going to be playing the parts of all-wise spirit mothers from here on out? Strange. What inspired her to use an Eastern European accent, I wonder? I was very impressed with that; but I've been a diehard supporter ever since Elizabeth. Now that is a movie!
8) The Disney dub has a rather irritating habit - and this is a flaw with a lot of Hollywood movies in general, so I'm not singling them out - of repeating certain lines or phrases over and over. Life Begins Again. It's a Big Responsibility. Earth Is Out Of Balance. These are the oh-so important "moral lessons" which clog up far too many cartoon movies in America.
Miyazaki is gracious enough to allow his themes to enter and exit naturally. He doesn't beat you over the head with them. Notice that we don't hear anything about the pollution of our world's oceans after those crucial early scenes. We don't even hear much about the balance of nature in the Japanese soundtrack. I think he allows the images to dominate this movie, not the words. Ponyo achieves Ghibli's goal of bringing style of children's storybooks to the big screen.
9) I was surprised to discover that the line about keeping the old women amused by sitting them in front of the window, spoken by an attendant at the Senior Center, does not appear in the Japanese version. Make of that what you will.
10) Of the "new" dialog from the American version, the best one is easily that wisecrack by the old lady: "I'd let a fish lick me if it'd help my back." That gets a laugh every time.
11) When the movie ended and the credits rolled, everybody in the theater piled out quickly. There's no bloody way in hell I'm sitting through that atrocious Autotune Disney wreck of the theme song. How could they ruin such a perfect little song? Even the first stanza, which is just Donny & Marie singing, is run through the computer synthesizer. What a mess.
One great advantage to the DVD and Blu-Ray will be the "audio" button on the remote control. When the closing credits come on, just switch to the Japanese audio and spare your ears the torment. Take that, fake pop tunes! Ugh, what a hideous train wreck of a "song." I suppose I should be happy that Eddie Murphy wasn't brought in to sing.
12) Many people are puzzled about the ending to the movie, where Sosuke must pass his "test" to prove his love for Ponyo is real. What is it? Simple. Ponyo runs out of gas, turns back into a fish. Then Sosuke is asked if he still accepts Ponyo as she really is. That's it.
I think we're expecting a big whiz-bang finish because that's what most movies give us. But such a climax would never work in this movie. We're subjected to loud action sequences far too often, anyway. I have come to appreciate the anti-climactic nature of Ponyo; in fact, the more I see this movie, the more natural and honest its conclusion feels. Miyazaki wanted My Neighbor Totoro, not Star Wars.
13) I really loved this shot. The camera is at ground level, and the children are walking forward. It has a great sense of depth, and I've noticed that Miyazaki has used a lot of "three dimensional" shots in this movie. I'm amazed to see a 68-year-old filmmaker continue to use new techniques and ideas in his work. How many other movie directors can make the same claim?
I also noticed a crucial visual clue on my viewing today - Ponyo's hair has shrunk. This is a great bit of foreshadowing as the two children walk into the dark tunnel. That scene in the tunnel has that wonderful sound of the bucket scraping against the ground. Nobody has to say a word. You already know what's happening.
Has anybody figured out that Ponyo is the closest Miyazaki has come to making a silent film? Scenes like this work so perfectly without dialog, and the speech in the Japanese version is sparse, almost functional. The images and sounds dominate the conversation.
14) Here's how the climactic scene between Sosuke and Gran Manmare plays out in the original Japanese:
Gran Manmare: So you are Sosuke-san, desu ne?
Sosuke: Hello. Are you Ponyo's mother?
Gran Manmare: Yes. I want to thank you for bringing my daughter back to me. Arigatou. Souske-san, Ponyo wanted to be like you, but she unleashed a terrible power. To become human, she must be loved for who she really is. Do you know that Ponyo was a fish?
Sosuke: Yes (Hm.)
Gran Manmare: Your blood made Ponyo almost human.
Sosuke: That's right! Ponyo licked my cut and made it better. So that's why she changed!
Gran Manmare: Can you accept Ponyo as she is?
Sosuke: Hmm (Nod)! I'll always love Ponyo, whether she's a fish, a human, or in-between.
I think that last line works much better than in the Disney version. "I love all the Ponyos. It's a big responsibility" doesn't sound the same. It sounds like a boy taking home a pet.
One of Miyazaki's greatest strengths is his romanticism. It's old-fashioned, quaint, a bit too innocent for the modern world, but it's honest and sincere. His romances remind me of the classic movies of long ago, the kind that are no longer made.
So Ponyo and Sosuke love one another. So what? Remember what Scott McCloud said. These are all symbols and icons, not literal people, places and things.
15) I still don't know why, but this sequence is one of the most moving moments in the entire film for me. Perhaps it's the sense that Ponyo's sisters are saying goodbye, because this is the last time they'll be together. Or perhaps it's this following shot, where the sisters grow into young women. In that single shot, we understand perfectly the nature of Ponyo and her family. It's a beautiful, triumphant shot, the music swells, everyone sits back in awe, and I'm reaching for whatever napkins I have left after finishing the popcorn.
Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to understand this image's meaning. This is what it means to look at your child and see the adult they shall one day become, and realize that day will arrive and pass in the blink of an eye. Life is a miracle, and precious, and oh, so short.