It’s Friday, 4:21 in the afternoon here on the east coast - but as I write (okay, keyboard), Hayao Miyazaki is onstage at the Disney animation panel at the San Diego Comic-con. Perhaps someone in the audience dressed as Astroboy is asking about his new film Ponyo; perhaps he’s answering the question, or perhaps everyone is watching a Ponyo excerpt at this very moment. If they are, they’re probably getting the tingles…
You know the tingles, that feeling running up and down your spine when you experience something awesome. Last month the Disney folks were kind enough to invite me to a preview of Ponyo – and I swear a day and half later the tingles were still with me.
For the first half of the film, the tingles came and went at particularly astonishing moments – a mysterious undersea explorer/scientist, dressed like an old-school Dr. Who, standing inside a huge air bubble on the edge of his flipper-powered submarine, taking stock of the aquatic life swimming past him… a swarm of tiny, not quite fish (with nearly human faces and bodies that look like nightgowns) sneaking out of the sub to peek at the scientist… the ocean turning into enormous waves of gigantic, sentient water-fish, leaping and bounding along the surface – and atop one of them Ponyo herself, gleefully racing in place (even though the ‘fish’ are carrying her along) to keep up with a car on the road alongside the sea…
The images followed one another without let-up: a beautiful, gigantic sea goddess, glowing a rainbow of colors, sweeping along just under the surface… a water-covered world, roads and houses visible beneath its surface, populated by frightening-looking yet benign prehistoric sea creatures… until… the moments merged together and the tingles continued nonstop for the rest of the film.
Ponyo is the movie’s star, a goldfish who wants to be a human being – but forget about The Little Mermaid. The film is set in contemporary Japan and again Miyazaki’s heroes are young children, realistically presented (the five year-old boy who adopts Ponyo nervously clutches the bottom of his shirt when he’s worried) yet ready to take on adult responsibilities; a handful of elderly, wheelchair-bound women are affectionately rendered with nary a false-teeth-falling-out gag… and (almost) everyone readily accepts the magical realm their world has moved into.
Images of other Miyazaki films echo throughout: like Spirited Away, a forbidding tunnel the boy and the now human Ponyo must pass through; like Howl and Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, a hero who shape-shifts depending on the emotions of the moment. (In Ponyo’s not-quite-fish, not-quite-human form she sports a pair of three-toed chicken feet.) There isn’t a frame of CGI in sight; in fact, the film is deliberately designed like a child’s drawing, with flat colors and thick black outlines to barely detailed ships and buildings.
Miyazaki’s not just concern for, but identification with the environment is once again an integral part of the story. (The once-human scientist “had to leave that all behind to serve the Earth.”) Unlike several other Miyazaki films, Ponyo’s rooting in Japanese culture and myth didn’t leave the Miscweant mystified. (Will someone please explain the endings of Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke to me?) Disney asked us not to review the film, so I won’t talk about the well-known stars who provide the English voices or describe its plot in any detail. I’ll just say that after I left the screening I walked 25 blocks home rather than be de-tingled on the subway. I didn’t even feel like turning on the TV for the next 36 hours or so, until the tingles faded away on their own; I wanted to hold onto that magic as long as I could.