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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Ponyo

March 1st, 2010

Ponyo - Buy from Amazon: Two-Disc DVD or Two-Disc Blu-ray / DVD Combo Disc

Ponyo is the latest from writer / director / animator Hayao Miyazaki, who previously made the Oscar-nominated Howl's Moving Castle, as well as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. (Not to mention Princess Mononoke, which many believe would have won had the Best Animated Feature category been around back then.) This sets up huge expectations for the film, expectations that might be impossible to match. Can it survive on its own merits?

Ponyo is essentially an adaptation of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to write it after seeing the 1989 Disney version. The movie starts below the ocean with Fujimoto mixing strange elixirs into the ocean. One of his "goldfish" escapes while he is distracted and swims away to explore. She is then nearly caught by a fishing boat, only to be stuck inside jar and washed up on the beach. It is there that she is rescued by Sosuke, a five-year old boy, who promptly names her Ponyo. When Fujimoto learns of this, he thinks the human kidnapped her and he's determined to rescue her. When he does, Sosuke is inconsolable by either his mother or his three elderly friends at the retirement home where she works. Not even a conversation with his father (who is away on a fishing boat for an extended trip) is enough.

Once Ponyo is back home with Fujimoto, we learn that Fujimoto is the father of Ponyo, or Brunhilda, as he calls her. He is determined to make sure she never interacts with the humans again, whom he blames for spoiling his ocean home. However, the more he tries to stop her, the more Ponyo wants to go back to Sosuke and become a human. When Fujimoto goes to get Ponyo's mother, Ponyo makes her escape. In the process, she spills Fujimoto's elixirs, sending the oceans out of balance.

Like I said, it follows the general plot of The Little Mermaid quite closely with a few key changes. For instance, the "little mermaid" and "prince charming" in this case are much, much younger (being five-year old kids). This adds to the sense of awe they experience. Secondly, there's a decidedly strong environmental message here. I certainly liked that addition to the story. My only real complaint is that sometimes the visuals are so stunning that they can overshadow the story. The story is also a little more simplistic than usual for a Hayao Miyazaki film, but this is because it is aimed at a younger audience. Even so, I think the vast majority of adult fans will be enthralled with the visuals, while the story is strong enough, even if it isn't up to the level many Hayao Miyazaki fans would expect. The voice acting is strong, both in the original Japanese and the English dub. I was worried that the voice work would be terrible, as the dubbed versions of most movies are vastly inferior to the original. However, the casting was well done in this case.

One minor point about the English sub. In the original Japanese, a friend of Sosuke, Kumiko, calls the "goldfish" form of Ponyo "fat." In English she says "boring." It's a goldfish with hair. How can you refer to that as boring? Perhaps calling it "fat" was considered offensive.

I don't have the Two-Disc DVD, but the Two-Disc Blu-ray / DVD Combo Disc comes with the DVD version of the movie on disc two. That disc has an introduction that is 3:21 long. The Blu-ray has that and a section called The World of Ghibli, Ghibli being the studio Hayao Miyazaki runs. Behind the Studio has a lot of interviews with Hayao Miyazaki talking about his influences for the movie and the creation of the characters, as well as past works and his studio in general. In total it's about 35 minutes of featurettes, all of which are worth checking out. Enter the Lands has short clips and narration about the three other Miyazaki films that are coming out this week. There's also a personality test for Ponyo. I wasn't surprised by that. The only extra on the Blu-ray that I think is exclusive to High Definition is the Picture-in-Picture track with the original Japanese storyboards.

The film's technical presentation is amazing. The video is flawless, as far as I can tell. And since this is such a visually powerful film, the Blu-ray presentation alone is worth the price. The audio is also strong, with clear dialogue. The sounds of the ocean and the score really stand out. The Blu-ray does cost 40% more than the DVD, but I would call that an acceptable premium for this type of release.

The movie is also being released in a gift set that includes a plush Ponyo. I don't know why there isn't a Blu-ray version of this gift set, but I would like one.

The Verdict

Ponyo is aimed at a much younger audience that most of Hayao Miyazaki's past films and this has resulted in a film with a more simplistic story. A lot of critics have pointed this out, but most still agree that the film is an absolute visual marvel. It's worth picking up. The Two-Disc Blu-ray / DVD Combo Disc is the better deal over the Two-Disc DVD. The film just deserves to be seen in High Definition.

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Filed under: Video Review, Gake no ue no Ponyo