September 06, 2009

Once a 'Ponyo'

It's easy to look at Ponyo's fairytale roots, and especially its stateside Disney pedigree, and write it off as another bastardization of Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid" fable. That's not incorrect, but it is simplistic, because Hayao Miyazaki can reinterpret any damn thing he pleases and make it something valuable and new. Andersen's story offers a perfect vehicle for Miyazaki's longtime pet obsessions — metamorphosis and nature pushed off-kilter — and like its source, Ponyo recognizes that love is often what drives us toward the worst disasters. "She's now a little girl, and she loves a little boy, and the whole world is out of balance," moans Ponyo's father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), and that's it in a nutshell: The beginning of love is the end of the world as we know it.

The Disney flourishes upon this elegant piece — stunt voice casting, junior Mouse House stablehands thrust before the microphone, and a shitty, abominable closing song — don't overwrite Miyazaki's touch. The tale is too simple, the execution too masterful. It's of a piece with the great Princess Mononoke, which similarly found lovers from different worlds facing ecological catastrophe, but its message is cast toward a different listener, much younger than I.

For love of Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), the merchild at first called Brunhilde (Noah Cyrus) gives up the name her father gave her in favor of that bestowed by the human boy. Rather than rescue her prince from a storm like Andersen's tragic heroine, Ponyo brings the storm herself in a quest to reunite with Sosuke. The moon is falling because this magical child loves a mortal, and she'll blithely inundate the world to reach him. The sea princess skips atop massive swells drawn straight from Hokusai's
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and carries the tide right to Sosuke's door. (Little Brunhilde's soundtrack, in her assault on the land, is very much like "The Ride of the Valkyries.")

As for Sosuke, he loves Ponyo in return, but by slipping into that trap he loosens ties with his mother (Tina Fey), and finds reason to worry that his father (Matt Damon) may have died at sea. Andersen's story was all about mortality, and characters here are threatened with death more than once along their road — a road, by the way, that's also traveled by beautiful armored Devonian fish – but we tend to forget the source material also provides a note of transcendent hope in its tragedy. The men of
Ponyo, from Sosuke's semi-neglectful father to the fretful water wizard Fujimoto, are invariably out of their depth in dealing with this crisis of love. The women — Sosuke's resourceful mom and Ponyo's vast and unknowable mother-goddess (Cate Blanchett, talking like Marlene Dietrich so we won't confuse her with the other goddess she's played) — have a secret insight to this mystery, something they won't share even with the audience. With the exception of elderly Toki (Lily Tomlin), who bears the standard folkloric warning against a sea-being living among mortals, they understand that love will out, though the heavens fall, and that a sanctified love can actually support the moon in the sky.

Oh, and my two-year-old loved it.


Andrew Wahl said...

Mr. Robbins:

A well written piece. The whole "the beginning of love is the end of the world as we know it" thing outs you as a bitter, bitter man. But a good piece, none the less.


(Best Show)Watch said...


Two things

1) I’d like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Medium’ for our website

2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing’ talent for our website.

The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]
‘Medium’s one of our featured shows. We’re hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.

What’s in it for you?
Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don’t pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.


Bill C said...

Okay everybody, I'm gonna try this Twitter shit during the Toronto Film Festival. Don't be surprised if I give up two tweets in, but tomorrow's ANTICHRIST, and I liked the idea of having an outlet for my real-time reaction to it.

Bill C said...

Also, @(Best Show)Watch: If we ever write something about "Medium", you are certainly welcome to syndicate it.

Jefferson Robbins said...

Everybody please follow Bill, as his only Twitterciples right now appear to be me and an exceptionally weird adbot.

O'JohnLandis said...

OK, I actually signed up for this Twitter shit just to follow Bill, and I'm most likely going to the Antichrist screening anyway. I'm especially excited because I think I'm going to manage to see the damn thing knowing basically nothing about it.

O'JohnLandis said...

I feel like I need to start a new thread for Antichrist, but since I'd mostly be talking to myself, I don't really know what to do. I know I was impressed by the thing; I know I wish it had been just a bit better; I know Willem Dafoe's pretty funny in person.

What should I do?

Wow Gold said...

Very Nice Blog

Wow Gold said...

very nice blog

Bill C said...

@O'John: These things can always have retroactive value. Post away if you're so inclined, I say. I think I myself am going to post TIFF disapatches here in lieu of capsules.

As I, erm, tweeted, I missed ANTICHRIST due to an old injury rearing its head. Frustrated to no end. Dafoe is indeed a very funny guy--one of my highlights of TIFFs past was having him look at me and say he was trying to figure out how he'd play me in a movie.

Rick said...

There are a few aspects of ANTICHRIST I really liked, but I hate how the second half completely nullifies everything that happened in the first half.

Anonymous said...

Bring on the Antichrist talkback. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts and interpretations, but mostly Alex's.

Dan said...

Is Antichrist being shown uncut in the US, as it was in the UK?