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'Ponyo'

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Posted: Friday, September 4, 2009 10:00 pm

We've got a pretty rough-looking roster of movies rolling out over the course of the next few weeks (apparently, "White Out" and "The Surrogates" are now what passes for fall-season adult entertainment), so before we make the plunge back into mass-produced studio pictures, I say we all take a moment to collectively reflect back on two wonderful, original works that are still playing in multiplexes: Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" and Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," which I tackled last week.

It's quite rare that movies by two proven masters are playing in wide release simultaneously, so it is with some urgency that I implore serious film lovers to ignore genre prejudices and rush out to see these movies.

Superficially, they are two vastly different works - one is an animated children's film and the other is, well, "Inglourious Basterds" - but at their core, they are both imaginative, engaging, fiercely original works of art that are delivered with enough polish and pizzazz to send any true film lover straight into the heart of cinema nirvana.

I've already given my pitch on "Inglourious Basterds," so now I'll take a crack at convincing you to see "Ponyo."

Over the years, I've developed a bit of a reputation as a cinematic hard-ass who only enjoys adult-oriented, R-rated entertainment. I understand how some may get this impression, but that's only because the vast majority of movies not aimed squarely at adults tend to be ridiculous, insulting, maddeningly boring wrecks that exist for no other reason than to pilfer the pockets of youths who can't get into the good R-rated stuff.

But my point is this: I don't need violence, sex, nudity, drug use and rampant profanity in order the enjoy a film (although they often help); I just like to see evidence that at least some degree of creative effort went into the work at hand, and that I'm not being asked to shell out my hardish-earned money simply because there's nothing better to see.

It seems surreal to say it, but that's how the American movie industry operates: Studios know that our kids are too flat-out stupid to know a bad movie when they see it, so they bank on that by devoting untold millions to the latest special effects (something kids do notice) without giving a second thought as to who is writing and directing their products. This leads to a desolate wasteland of creative thought, and consequently, I refuse to take part in it.

This is why I love it when a new Hayao Miyazaki film is released in the states. Like Tarantino, he's an amazingly reliable filmmaker who always gives us great work, but beyond that, his films give me an opportunity to argue that, no, it's not that I have something against family-friendly entertainment; it's just that most of it sucks. But we could certainly learn some things from Miyazaki (although, considering that the man has been making animated features since the 1970s, I suppose that if we were going to take his cue, we would have done it already).

Here is an artist who, in films such as "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kiki's Delivery Service," "Howl's Moving Castle" and the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," has shown a remarkably consistent ability to take the simplest (but often strangest) stories and use them as launching pads that catapult the viewer into fantastical worlds filled with sights they've never before seen or probably even conceived of. Miyazaki's imagination is seemingly boundless, and it is always an unequaled pleasure to immerse myself in his freaky, funky little head trips.

"Ponyo" may be his weirdest movie yet, a status that may explain why some critics aren't as enthusiastic about it as they were some of his older works. And yeah, I'll say it: This is a weird, weird flick that may put off some children, and even adults who aren't already familiar with the filmmaker's work.

Sort of a mix between "The Little Mermaid" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," it follows the adventures of Ponyo, an other-worldly goldfish-person (?) who escapes from an underwater prison where she has been held by her domineering, strangely androgynous mad scientist father who is plotting to destroy humans so he can save the oceans.

With me so far? Okay, from there she hooks up with Sosuke, a young boy who lives in a tight-knit island community with his mother while his father is away at sea. Sosuke finds Ponyo stranded on the beach and immediately takes a shine to her, and the remainder of the story follows Ponyo's efforts to evade capture and successfully take human form by sheer force of will.

It may sound a tad obtuse, but Miyazaki's films aren't just for Japanese pot heads. They're amazingly accessible considering how deeply rooted they are in cultural folklore, and thanks to Disney's efforts to make them even more American-friendly, kids can enjoy them with English-dub tracks that feature noted actors with recognizable voices. "Ponyo" boasts voice work from such performers as Tina Fey and Matt Damon, as Sonsuke's parents, and Liam Neeson as Ponyo's deeply misunderstood father.

Normally I abhor English dubs, but I'll make an exception here because, one, animated films are always dubbed in one language or another anyway; and two, I know most kids don't want to "read a movie," and I'll roll with some compromises in order to get them in the seats.

"Ponyo"

**** (out of four)
2009, Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, G

Yes, some of the dialogue is altered in the process (studios generally pay more attention to lip-syncing than to maintaining the integrity of the original script), but with a movie like "Ponyo," dialogue naturally takes a back seat to visual splendor.

For the first time in several years, Miyazaki has made a movie without the use of computer effects. (He has always tilted very heavily toward traditional cell animation, but "Ponyo" is absolutely 100 percent old-school.)

This represented a mammoth undertaking for the elderly filmmaker, who has already "retired" several times but for some unfathomable reason is still able to churn out top-tier animation at the age of 68. Bravo to him, and I'll still hold out hope that he eventually makes another triumphant return to the screen.

If his next film is even half as visually mind-blowing and unapologetically charming as "Ponyo," it'll still be another masterwork.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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