MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

LAFF 2009 Review: Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is, very loosely, based upon the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Little Mermaid, but with some bizarre twists that mark it as a Miyazaki film. I’m a huge fan of Miyazaki’s work, but I’ve found in general that I very much prefer his films in the original Japanese with English subtitles than re-dubbed in English with American actors. There’s almost always something lost in the translation with Miyazaki’s films when they’re dubbed: cultural references lost, or the way in which particular characters say things, or the emphasis put on this or taken away from that.
I realize that American audiences often find subtitles difficult to swallow, and further realize that in trying to market Miyazaki’s films to younger audiences, studios are targeting a demographic that might not be able to read subtitles anyhow, so I appreciate the necessity of dubbing Miyazaki’s films for this market. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the end result, although I can hope that seeing dubbed Miyazaki might eventually serve as a gateway of sorts to encourage older kids and adults to explore Miyazaki’s work in the original Japanese.
Because I recognize that I have this preconceived prejudice against Miyazaki dubs, I’m not going to judge the film completely until I can see a subtitled version. This dubbed version, though, is the one that you and your kids are more likely to see, so it’s only fair that I share some thoughts about it.
Animation-wise, it’s as gorgeous as one would expect a Miyazaki film to be. I heard a lot of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” from little voices around the Mann Village Theater during the closing night screening, and the adults around me seemed to be as delighted by it as the kids. As with much of Miyazaki’s work, there are some dark and scary moments, but I don’t think there’s anything in this film that’s too much for younger kids to handle (and certainly, there’s nothing that’s any scarier than the evil sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, who I thought was pretty terrifying).
Story-wise, I can’t say I liked Ponyo as much as my favorite Miyazaki films, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Tortoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, or even as much as Princess Minonoke and Spirited Away, which I rate very slightly below those. Ponyo for me falls below all those films in terms of story and even the animation itself, but it’s still so much better than just about any animated fare offered to families by anyone other than Pixar that I’d still recommend it.
Certainly I’ll want my own kids to see it, though I want them to see both the Americanized version and the Japanese dub. In the meantime, all this talk of Miyazaki makes me think the long holiday weekend might be a perfect time for a family Miyazaki marathon. Subtitled, of course.

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