22 February 2010

Hand Relief

In this most inappropriately monikered post for a long time (you have to go way back to the Brüno/Public Enemies two-fer for worse), I'm taking a look at the return of hand-drawn animation to the big screen- Studio Ghibli's Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki's re-telling of The Little Mermaid and Disney have recently dusted off their lightboards to bring us The Princess and the Frog. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.


Ponyo is the sweet and decidedly fishy star of Studio Ghibli's latest, the daughter of a powerful underwater wizard called Fujimoto, who wants to redress the balance of nature so that the ocean-raping humans are wiped out. While this marine coup is going on, Ponyo explores the shallows of the sea, close to the shore of a small island. There she's found by Sosuke, a young boy who loves the sea and adopts Ponyo, mistaking her for a goldfish. By taking her on land, Ponyo is imbued with the ability to become human, which leads Fujimoto to advance his plans against humanity. As bitter old lady Yoshie warns Sosuke, fish with faces coming out of the sea will cause a tsunami...

As a caveat to this review, I should say I saw the English dubbed version of Ponyo, which features the dubious voice talents of Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus, siblings of their respective horrid family phenomena. Needless to say, this ruined the film. I get the feeling that watching the film in Japanese with English subtitles, or even just muted, would vastly improve it. It's a shame to see Disney drop the ball on the dub with this when they made masterstrokes like Michael Keaton as Porco Rosso, or basically everyone who did a voice in the dubbed Howl's Moving Castle. Compared to those, the casting of Jonas and Cyrus just makes the film shrill. Horribly shrill.

I said in my Percy Jackson review that a certain crass quality creeps into a lot of American features, but it's never so irksome in any other Ghibli audio retooling as it is here. The song playing over the credits is just ear poison, like Disney is pulling off some Claudian attack to leave the worst taste possible as you race from the cinema. But even for the shrill stuff, there is a lot to enjoy here, as with all Ghibli efforts. Its flights of fancy are bolstered by a beautiful visual sensibility, from landmarks to character design. The story goes through the motions and is almost anti-climactic, but the target audience is children, and I bet they'll adore it. It's leisurely paced, and you'd be hard pressed to hear the understated vocals of Liam Neeson and Tina Fey when you're on the Cyrus wavelength, but this is a film that will appeal to kids without patronising them and it looks dazzling to boot.

The dubbed version of Ponyo is irresistibly cute just so long as nobody's speaking. I'd be very interested to see the Japanese version, because the English dub exacerbates the slightly saccharine aspects of the plot development and Miyazaki's body of work has already shown us that his stories transcend language and culture. Dubbing aside, the very worst you can say about it is that it's the least good Ghibli film- it's too good to be the worst, but not even close to as good as my personal favourite, Porco Rosso. Hayao Miyazaki continues to pioneer new techniques in hand-drawn animation and storytelling, which is no mean feat for an art form that's been around for almost a century.

Studio Ghibli have consistently championed hand-drawn animation in the wake of Disney's abandonment of the craft, but in an ironic twist of fate, John Lasseter, who pioneered the shift that made computer animation viable in the first place while at Pixar, has now brought Disney back to its roots. The Princess and the Frog is a more unconventional adaptation of a fairy tale than fans of Disney animation will be used to- set in 1920s New Orleans, the heroine is Tiana, a waitress who works night and day in pursuit of her dream of opening a restaurant. Elsewhere, the arrogant Prince Naveen falls afoul of the manipulative witch doctor Facilier during a visit to Louisiana, transforming him into a frog. Tiana and Naveen soon collide and end up being thrown together in a fight for survival to become human once more.

The synopsis sounds similar, I'll grant you, but it's easy to underestimate the value of handdrawn animation and its craft here. Disney's New Orleans is a vibrant place that actually embeds proper characters as opposed to American-accented clones- note how the only one who looks Middle-Eastern in Aladdin is the bad guy Jafar, with the hero instead being modelled on Tom Cruise, of all people. Tiana's story is central, but in the beginning it's almost as an adjunct to the "real princess" in the film, who's portrayed as spoilt, dependent on men and generally immature, whereas Tiana works hard and knows there's no marriage-related shortcut to the life she wants. It's a departure from Disney's usual, to be sure. At the same time it has immense nostalgia value for people my age and older. For today's kids, the Shrek films will be nostalgia material in the future. But while I'm sure there's a lot of work put into the animation of those digitally animated films, there's nothing like the meticulous attention to detail in this film and films like it to dazzle audiences.

It's every bit as good a story and as good-looking as anything from Pixar and Dreamworks, and bucks various Disney tropes without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For instance, there's a "Disney death" (see Snow White as opposed to Mufasa) at the end that actually isn't a Disney death. It's just a death! The character in question stays dead! It's a wonderful departure and I haven't ruined it for you by mentioning it- the beauty is in how it's executed. On more familar ground, we have a terrific jazz-centric soundtrack and Dr. Facilier, a villain in the best tradition of Disney villains, who is voiced magnificently by Keith David. He brings exactly the right amount of malice to make young kids shit themselves and delight older viewers with his villainy. It's a superb balancing act from old-school Disney scribes/directors Ron Clements and John Musker, and the whole film passes muster as well.

If there's a fault with The Princess and the Frog, it's that it doesn't quite match up to the best of the Disney animated films of the 90s. It's not as funny as The Lion King, and its songs aren't as catchy as those in Aladdin. But it succeeds on many levels as a statement of intent for Disney under John Lasseter. A few years ago, this might have been closely followed by a sub-par DVD sequel called something like "Louis' Grand Adventure", but Lasseter has the studio revering its rich history rather than pillaging it for lame spin-offs. Hand-drawn animation is back in a big way at Disney, and The Princess and the Frog is a really rather delightful spearhead for that revival.

Of the two animated films, The Princess and the Frog is the more likable and generally more accomplished, though I'm sure that any of my problems with the dubbed version of Ponyo are more than compensated for in the absence of any Disney bred tweens in the original Japanese version. Why not share your comments on the films and/or my reviews below?

I fear the end may be approaching, my friends. I'm approaching a cinema outing this Wednesday with the same trepidation with which David Tennant's Tenth Doctor approached death on New Year's Day. Not to pre-suppose anything, but I'm so scared that Valentine's Day might actually finish me off. I could do so much more! So! Much! More!


I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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