As I woke up Sunday morning, I was more than ready to find out that, yes, Disney had lied to me once again and Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" would not be playing anywhere even near my little corner of the world, but I was thankfully wrong.
Centerville, about a half hour to the south of me, has actually been good to Miyazaki through the years, showing both "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away," and there was practically a packed house for the 1:30 screening of "Ponyo," which I have to say just warmed my extremely cynical heart to see.
Now, "Ponyo" certainly isn't one of Miyazaki's most epic works, but in my book it's still one of his best. I've always liked his stories when they keep things deceptively simple, as with my two favorites, "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Porco Rosso." Like those two magical movies, "Ponyo" is clearly intended for children, and in all the best ways.
For anyone who doesn't already know, our titular heroine, voiced in the Western version by Hannah Montana's brother, apparently, is a goldfish who just wants to be a little girl. And to enjoy this blissfully simple creation, that's all you really need to know.
From there, Miyazaki goes on to explore many of the themes that have flown through his best movies through the years. At the movie's core, it's about friendship and - hokey as it may sound - love, between Ponyo and her new human friend Sosuke (apparently a Jonas of some kind), Sosuke and his mother Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey), and, well, all living things (like I said, you have to swallow a whole lot of hokey to go along with this one.)
But just as important as the story here is that "Ponyo" looks as good as any Miyazaki movie ever has, particularly when he explores one of his favorite realms, the sea. Though I had seen the scene when Ponyo emerges from the sea on the backs of a school of fish on the small screen beforehand, it's still a majestic sight, made all the more magical in the vivid and yes, 2-D strokes that turn Miyazaki's pallet into a watercolor tableau full of beautiful colors.
I'm not sure anyone will pay enough attention ("Ponyo" did manage to crack the top 10, taking in about $3.6 million in week one), but with this and the coming "The Princess and the Frog" Disney has, perhaps unwittingly, entered into an animation war to save the traditionally beautiful art form (and, interestingly enough of course, at direct odds with its almost always better half, Pixar.) In this looming battle, 2-D is sure to lose, but I'll be its champion until it disappears for good.
As with any Miyazaki movie, "Ponyo" does just have head-scratching plot turns that demand you suspend all logic. The most glaring example is that we're to believe an apparently very loving mother would leave her 5-year-old son (and his new goldfish inamorata) at home alone during a very violent storm. But if you're willing to suspend reason for a while and can stand a big dose of sugar, I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy a ride with "Ponyo."
I'll close with the most direct comparison I can think of, to M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water," easily one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Though both movies were written explicitly for children - Miyazaki's movie for his grandson and M. Night's crapfest as a supposed "bedtime story" - "Ponyo" succeeds where the other movie fails so miserably because it delights in majestic storytelling rather than simply throwing out ludicrous ideas with no spirit behind them (it's painful to remember, but didn't M. Night cast himself as the writer who can somehow save the world - sheesh.)
Here's hoping Miyazaki has at least a few more movies left in him, because "Ponyo" proves he's still very much near the top of his game. Peace out.