Monday, March 8, 2010
PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA: When Did We Become so Cynical?
Through a series of events I don't need to go into, I ended up seeing Miyazaki's newest movie twice in the same month, and now own the DVD... which is a given since I love Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki-Sensei's in particular.
So what to say about PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA...
Well, first off, I greatly enjoyed the film; I can't say it's my favorite film Hyao Miyazaki has directed, but, then, this film wasn't FOR me; which I guess is why I'm a little taken aback by the reception it got among the people I've talked to who have seen it (except for Chris Butcher, who knows how to watch him some children's movies!).
PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA is one of the only movies I've seen in recent memory that is explicitly for children. I mean, like, pre-school to grade 4. That's not to say it's pandering, or talking down, or without substance; I find it's themes of social and ecological responsibility to be as relevant and subtextural as any other Miyazaki movie; maybe even a little less obvious than past movies, which really hit you over the head with the enviromental issues, while PONYO chooses to comment without preaching or lingering.
So what is it that brings the cynic out in the Miyazaki loving adults that watch this movie? I believe that it's because it's a film without any direct conflict. While the stakes may be high, there's no real sense of threat or menace, nor even a real villain in the movie. In fact, most all of the characters are charming and likable; even the most unlikeable character, PONYO'S father, Fujimoto, is still a very sympathetic character (frankly, he's my favorite in the movie, what with his Tezuka style nose, and big, crazy, Tim Burton-esque red hair, and Doctor Suess-ish machines and absurdity about him... I'd actually love to see a spin-off prequel with just him); a doting father trying to keep his daughter innocent and pure, filled with the anxiety that all fathers have of their daughters growing up before they are ready to let go. He doesn't particularly stand in the way of Ponyo's happiness, or do anything menacing, thus he's only really a villain in that he's the only character in the movie who has any sort of sense of the danger they're in.
Even with the world covered in water, there's no sense of "this is it... the end of the world!' There's no sign of chaos or death; not even any worry of drowning, as the magic of Fujimoto and Ponyo's mother protect anyone beneath the sea, so while there is a threat, there's no real sense of urgency or danger (except for a bit of comical flailing around from Fujimoto, who seems to be taking everything way to seriously by comparison).
No, there's no conflict in this movie, because it's a movie created for children and from a child's perspective, which doesn't play well in the cynical world of adulthood. Which is something I didn't get upon exiting the theater... because I didn't watch it as an adult, I watched it as a child.
I believe it's important to put yourself into the mode best suited for watching the movie. Be aware of what the target audience is, otherwise your expectations will be counterproductive to the experience of the movie. I don't go into watching HOW HIGH or BLACK DYNAMITE expecting high art, and I don't go into THERE WILL BE BLOOD or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN expecting car chases and explosions.
And from that perspective, I was drawn into the movie the same way I'd want to be if I was still a child, and in that respect, the movie made sense to me. A world filled with water wouldn't worry a child; they'd find it fasinating, they'd see the adventure in it. But, on the flip side, the things that a child would find scary are things like long, dark, tunnels, and not knowing where your mother is; the prospect of being left alone for the first time, with all the expectations of adulthood resting on your tiny shoulders. Children aren't cynical or world weary; they accept everything as truth, without questioning; such as how a fish could become a girl, or a toy boat could become a ship.
PONYO is a movie for children told from the perspective of children, and is successful at both; a beautiful little story that, yes, is without conflict, but is also without cynicism.