Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis

Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis (2001)

I’m a great fan of the 2001 anime Metropolis. This movie arrived in American theaters in August, 2001, and was not only a thrilling, dazzling spectacle, it eerily prophesied the terrorist attacks of September 11. The films images of the towering Ziggurat in ruins, the very symbol of modern human civilization, cut a little too close to the bone.

We are reminded of the urban apocalypse of Akira, the landmark 1988 anime film written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and its depictions of urban corruption and decay. This is no small coincidence, as Otomo wrote the script for this new Metropolis, which was directed by the skilled veteran Rintaro, an old Toei Doga alum who gave us such hits as Galaxy Express 999, Harmagedon and X. A freelance director by trade, Rintaro specialized in dystopian science-fiction, and added with his animation experience working on Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), makes him a perfect choice to helm Metropolis.

What makes this Metropolis so compelling is how freely it mashes together its varied influences, creating something new in the alchemical furnace. It’s original inspiration, of course, lies in the 1927 Fritz Lang masterpiece, not only with the Ziggurat and the main characters, but the underlying political and social themes. When Tezuka created his manga comic adaptation, he famously claimed to take nothing from Lang’s work but the image on the movie poster. That is a slight exaggeration, but fairly close to the mark. Rintaro fuses these two sources together nicely, giving us the thick, rounded character designs with a gritty urban environment, combining story and character elements and adding new influences and ideas to the recipe.

The movie’s strong cyberpunk design owes much to Akira, and we can spot how seamlessly Otomo’s world integrates with the Lang-Tezuka-Rintaro mashup. We almost expect to find motorcycle gangs lurking around the underground stations, although a thrilling chase scene involving rickshaws fills the void.

Continue reading “Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis”

The Simpson’s Movie: A Review…or, My Eyes, The Goggles Do Nothing!

The Simpsons Movie

Good Lord, this movie stinks.

I had high hopes for The Simpson’s Movie, and, indeed, it begins on a high note, with a great Itchy & Scratchy sequence that ends with Scratchy eating hundreds of nuclear warheads. Hah! Then the camera pans back to reveal we’re watching a movie, where Homer Simpson stands and berates the audience for paying money to see a show they’re already getting on television for free. Haha…more funny.

Homer wasn’t kidding. The jokes in this movie are good for about, oh, 20 minutes. Twenty minutes, the length of one decent TV. Then the writers lose any sense of creativity or wit, and plod along for two unbearably dull hours. The Simpson’s Movie is such a slave to Hollywood formula that I was looking behind my couch for a paperback copy of “Screenwriting 101.”

Do I really have to write more? I don’t feel like it. You’ve had more than enough time to see this movie if you’re so inclined. I’m really the last one to the party. I think the problem here is the same as the TV show: The Simpson’s has run out of gas. After 25 years on the air, every conceivable joke, story, and scenario has been played out a dozen different ways. The series is now reduced to the level of a simple gag show that sputters through tired routines and worn jokes, and has been so for years.

There’s no reason why a Simpson’s Movie couldn’t be clever, witty, biting, recapture some of that old magic. I could imagine a wacky comedy like one of Mel Brooks’ classic films — Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs — or any number of screwball farces. No such luck. What’s here is just a standard-issue formula picture that has been used on about a billion summer blockbusters.

About the only good thing to come out of this movie is the animation, which is much fuller than on TV. The production team definitely put a priority on animating The Simpsons as they never could on the small screen. For the most part, it works very well. They didn’t turn this movie into an overdrawn Disney cartoon, but augment the in-between animations whenever necessary.  Everything looks very nice, if still a bit bland, but that’s largely due to the art design of the series itself, and it’s far too late to do anything about that now.

Continue reading “The Simpson’s Movie: A Review…or, My Eyes, The Goggles Do Nothing!”

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Michael Sporn was a successful independent animator who lived and worked in New York City. A remarkably gifted individual, he built a long and prolific legacy of award-winning animated short films, often adapted from popular children’s books. According to Wikipedia, he produced and directed over thirty half-hour specials for PBS, CBS, HBO and Showtime. He created cartoon shorts for Sesame Street, public service announcements for UNICEF, and also music videos, documentary and film titles, commercial logos and industrial spots. He was immensely prolific and talented.

In addition to these achievements, Sporn created over fifteen short films, including adaptations of Raggedy Ann & Andy, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, Goodnight Moon, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, and many more. No doubt you will have your favorites from his filmography; I know I have mine.

Sporn was working on a feature animated movie based on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe during his final years, which, unfortunately, was never to see completion. It was during this time that he began his battle with pancreatic cancer, which he fought with boundless courage and good spirits. Unfortunately, he would succumb to the disease, passing away in 2014.

In the early months of 2006, as I was beginning Ghibli Blog, Sporn was kind enough to send me a DVD copy of his most recent film, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (I repaid his kindness by sending a package of numerous Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata films which were only then available in Japan). Based upon a great illustrated book, It tells the story of a Manhattan performance artist who famously tied a tightrope between the then-newly built World Trade Center towers, then danced and frolicked between the towers to the delight of the people below. The cartoon captures a sense of pencil and watercolor nostalgia, perfectly realized from the book, sparsely and carefully animated, as though Sporn did not wish to impose himself. It is the work of an artist with a keen eye, a sharp mind, and a humble spirit.

Continue reading “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers”

Ratatouille (2007): A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review

Ratatouille (2007)

I.

I’ve been following the box office numbers for Pixar’s Ratatouille on Box Office Mojo, hopeful that the movie’s fortunes turn out to surprise us. It’s a common assumption that this movie would not be a big hit with audiences, certainly not when compared to Pixar’s other hits. I’ve kept my hopes up that people would defy the suits and marketers who run Hollywood, and turn out in solid numbers. It hasn’t really happened, and at this point I don’t know if those numbers will ever arrive.

I’m really not sure why this is the case. Pixar is about as reliable a brand you can find for movies today. They’ve never made a bad picture, and many dedicated fans will insist that they never will. But you have to struggle to explain what could become Hollywood conventional wisdom: that Pixar is now a fading brand. Heaven forbid.

I’m not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there’s no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo reached a peak, every Pixar movie since has grossed steadily smaller numbers; first with The Incredibles, then Cars, and now (almost certainly) Ratatouille. Surely this would be a concern, but add in the immensely expensive Disney buyout from last year, and you can see the stakes involved. The knives will be out for John Lasseter and Pixar’s generals, and that battle is really only just beginning.

So what’s wrong here? Is it simply that the market is oversaturated with CGI cartoons? Are parents reaching the burnout point, tiring of having to drag their children to more and more animated animal movies? Has the public become burned from an endless dirge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats? Maybe it’s everything, maybe it’s nothing.

I don’t know, I really don’t. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be a running topic on Ghibli Blog. And here it is, in case you’ve missed it: Americans don’t think of animation as an artform or a facet of the movies; they primarily see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is embraced by artists and animation enthusiasts, but for the general population, the medium serves a more utilitarian purpose. Cartoons exist to keep our children quiet.

The explosion in mass media over the past generation, no doubt, has been a factor. When I was a small child, there were four television stations and maybe a few UHF channels. Then cable arrived and the number of stations rose to 30. Today, there are literally hundreds of stations across cable and satellite providers. Home video has made thousands of movie and TV titles available within reach. The rise of digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu only accelerates this momentum. And let us not forget the ten billion websites, all clamoring for our attention. American families have never felt so overwhelmed with entertainment options. Does this mean the loudest movies — the biggest explosions, the loudest fart jokes, the simplest plots — will rise to the top? Where does this leave thoughtful or nuanced movies?

Because of these reasons, I can understand the challenge in making a smart movie like Ratatouille a big hit. It’s so difficult to be heard over the noise. Even Pixar must sometimes struggle to be heard. This is going to be a major challenge for our beloved animation studio.

Continue reading “Ratatouille (2007): A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review”

Down on Skid Row

Down On Skid Row (1998)

Skid Row is a documentary movie that chronicles the lost era of downtown Minneapolis and its fabled “skid row” in the heart of the old city. It was filmed between 1955 and 1961 by John Bacich, a World War II veteran and successful real estate businessman who owned a bar and several “flophouse” hotels along Washington Avenue. He shot movies of his neighborhood patrons on 8mm film, and in the late 1980s, assembled his footage into a 30-minute short film, complete with running commentary of his memories.

This is a haunting documentary, deeply moving, and full of the human experience: tragedy, despair, misery, urban decay, but also humor, warmth, and the genuine compassion of Bacich, who was dubbed “Johnny Rex,” the “King of Skid Row.” It depicts an important part of American history that has now vanished. It is one of the most humane documentary films I have ever seen. Its power resonates and echoes in your heart and mind. I pray for the souls of these sad, lost men, as though they were here with me today, trapped in Purgatory and awaiting Salvation.

The Minneapolis Gateway district was the original heart of the old city, the merging of its three main avenues along the Mississippi River: Washington, Hennepin and Lyndale. Because its railroads lay nearby, this area became a source for cheap, easily exploitable labor — the “day laborers.” These men would work for the rail yards and trains for a short period of time, days, weeks or even months. Their temporary status prevented them from joining labor unions, thus keeping them poor and powerless. Ordinances were passed to force all the city’s liquor stores into the Gateway, and closed everywhere else. Police drove criminal elements — drugs and prostitution — into the growing slums, away from middle-class households. It was diabolical, brutally cynical, and highly effective. Soon, Minneapolis was home to the largest skid row in the American midwest.

In 1958, Minneapolis began a five-year crusade to reclaim the Gateway district, demolishing over 20 blocks and nearly 200 buildings. As the city’s business core moved several blocks west, Washington and Hennepin Avenues’ continued to decay. After World War II, a growing middle class embraced the new future of suburbs, with their clean and spacious streets, shopping malls, and luxurious cars. The age of the interstate highway had arrived. Edina’s Southdale Mall ushered in the age of indoor shopping. Skyway tunnels moved people off downtown streets and into safe, climate-controlled environments. City planners envisioned a futuristic city with gleaming highways, polished skyscrapers, a future that was bright, clean, rational. A future world totally devoid of crime, poverty, pollution.

Continue reading “Down on Skid Row”

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997)

There’s a great opening scene in Princess Mononoke where a quiet, pastoral village is attacked by a crazed, gigantic boar. The creature is covered with a thick skin of blackened tentacles that snarl and snake with wild abandon, and it becomes more than a second skin. It’s monstrous and foreboding, like something Ray Harryhausen would cook up if he had a bad trip while watching The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Ashitaka, the young chieftain of the village, launches into pursuit, and we’re hurled into a chase sequence. It’s thrilling to watch, and the camera swoops and dives right in the action. There’s an almost desperate momentum at play, as this enormous, mutated thing stampedes on, while the boy vainly tries to calm it down. He is reluctantly forced to bring the creature down with two well-placed arrows, but not before one of the black tentacles latches onto his arm; Ashitaka saved his people but is left burned, scarred.

For many of us in the United States, this was our first introduction to Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and we were instantly hooked. Back home, Japanese audiences who loved his work would flock to theaters, break all box-office records and make Princess Mononoke a blockbuster smash. They also had an added advantage of knowing the score, knowing that the opening chase is a clever reenactment of an early chase scene in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

In that film (and the graphic novel on which it’s based), the heroine successfully calms down a stampeding Ohmu, a giant, green bug with claws and a dozen eyes. Now, in the new version, the tone is different, and the mood is shockingly bleaker. The setup is the same, but the payoff is tragic; the hero is fatally cursed, and doomed to walk alone in search of answers. The adventure serial has collided into the anti-war picture.

Miyazaki’s earlier works, Animal Treasure Island and Heidi, Girl of the Alps and Future Boy Conan, for example, carry a romantic idealism at their core. But now, in middle age, we see the emergence of the serious, somber Miyazaki. Miyazaki, the heartbroken idealist. Miyazaki, the cynic. Nausicaa marked the beginning of that shift; Mononoke is a much darker picture, wrestling with complex themes and issues, one that clearly has no patience for simple solutions or easy answers.

Mononoke is often referred to as a movie with an “environmental” theme, humans and nature should get along, but that’s not really accurate. It’s a movie about how man and nature don’t get along. Nobody gets along with anyone, negotiations have collapsed, the knives are drawn and everyone wants blood. When the title character is finally introduced, Ashitaka has traveled to the edge of a mythic forest and walked into the middle of a full-scale war: San, the “Princess Mononoke,” her adoptive wolf pack at her side, fighting to preserve the forest; Lady Eboshi, her women equipped with firearms, on the other, their ironworks village clearing the land to mine their ores; the Shogun and his armies, eager to steal the land Eboshi has made valuable.

Continue reading “Princess Mononoke (1997)”

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away (2001)

We’re living in a Golden Age of Animation right now. The form has evolved and matured over the course of the past twenty years, and now we are reaping the benefits. Earlier this year, we saw the excellent French movie Triplets of Belleville, a great mixture of Gallic culture and Spike Jones records. In America, Pixar has had great popular and critical success with Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Story movies being their best to date. There’s Richard Linklater’s Waking Life; there’s Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress; and there’s Mamoru Oshii, whose Innocence is about to be released here.

At the core of it all lies Studio Ghibli, which blazed the trail and set the standard for everything to follow. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 Princess Mononoke topped $175 million at the Japanese box office (the top-grossing Japanese film typically draws around $30 million), following up a whole string of masterpieces. Now comes his 2001 movie, The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro, the very best of the current crop of animated features.

This is one of the sheer joys of the movies. I go to the theatre and pay eight bucks so I can see a grand sense of imagination, those creative flights of fancy that are all too rare. It’s a thrill to see the work of filmmakers who are truly creative, and Spirited Away has it in spades.

Essentially, this is Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s bold contribution to children’s literature, an Alice in Wonderland or a Wizard of Oz for the Japanese set. The plot involves a ten-year-old girl named Chihiro who, in a sense, falls through the looking glass, becoming ensnared in the realm of spirits. Stubborn, a little whiny, she nevertheless starts to discover those talents, hidden inside, waiting to be unleashed.

The bulk of the movie is set in a Japanese bath house and draws heavily from their vast cultural heritage, their history, their religion, their mythology. In a sense, this is all a plea to the audience: remember who we are, and who we were. This is a deeply nostalgic film that seeks to reawaken its audience to its true identity, before Japan becomes nothing more than ugly skyscrapers, bloated consumerism, soulless materialism and broken-down theme parks.

This is a common Ghibli theme, actually, and it’s closest to Isao Takahata’s 1994 movie, Pom Poko, but Spirited Away is far more luminous, more colorful, more detailed. This is a joyous, optimistic film at its core, packed with details and surprises at every turn. The bath house welcomes visitors of every shape and size, radish gods and giant birds, small talking frogs and dragons. The soot sprites from My Neighbor Totoro are here, working in the boiler room and feeding coal into the furnace, under the supervision of a crotchety old man with spider arms.

Continue reading “Spirited Away (2001)”

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Back in February, I was fortunate enough to catch My Neighbor Totoro at the Oak Street Cinema. The theatre was packed with eager grownups, their children and their grandchildren. It was a wonderful, joyous experience, full of wonder and awe and that special kind of laughter that only comes from remembering your own childhood. Oh, and I’m sure the kids loved the movie, too.

My Neighbor Totoro is the finest children’s movie ever made. It is the one animated film that captures the spirit of the best children’s literature, like Joel Silverstein’s poems or Where the Wild Things Are or Anne of Green Gables or Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. It has that quiet pulse, that willingness to pause and reflect on the moment; two young girls can sit, enraptured, as they spy tadpoles in a brook, or a giant camphor tree. Their imaginations can run free in a way that we, the adults, cannot.

The only American program that I could really compare this to is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The beloved 1965 cartoon looks simple and crude at times, but it’s the best animated program ever made in our country because of its spirit. Charles Shultz rejected tired clichés and told a personal story that reflected on his own beliefs and childhood; he never talked down to the audience, but respected their intelligence. The result is a classic beloved by generations of all ages.

Is Totoro a children’s story? No more than Charlie Brown. Both are ageless, timeless, speaking (as Miyazaki later described his Spirited Away) to ten-year-olds and anyone who ever was a ten-year-old.

This movie is often described as being about the Totoros, mysterious animals who live in a camphor tree and befriend the two girls who moved there, but that’s not really accurate. It’s really about the girls themselves. It’s about their summer spent in the countryside, where their family resides while their mother is in the hospital. My Neighbor Totoro, at its core, is about exploration and discovery, about running through a new house, chasing after soot sprites, picking flowers and corn. It’s about childhood.

For Hayao Miyazaki, the writer-director, this represents a major shift in his work. He built his career on cliffhanger serials like the 1971 Toei feature, Animal Treasure Island, and the 1978 TV series, Future Boy Conan, and the style migrated into his movies. As great as his previous three feature films are — Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky — they are essentially maturations of those earlier cliffhanger serials from his youth. My Neighbor Totoro is radically different in its pace and tone. It is slow, patient, reflective; his first work that feels like cinema. Miyazaki has always shown a quiet side before, influenced greatly by his mentor and colleague Isao Takahata, but now his quiet voice takes center stage. For those of us reared on Disney movies, this is something of a revelation.

Continue reading “My Neighbor Totoro (1988)”

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a heartwarming bliss-out of a movie, full of spirit and fun, and reminds you of the kind of movies Hollywood used to make long ago. Watching, I am reminded of the golden age of Hollywood romantic swashbucklers, of Errol Flynn and Saturday afternoon serials. Is it odd that today’s live-action movies are increasingly becoming more and more cartoonish, but in a bad way? That genuine spark of imagination is increasingly hard to come by, lost in a sea of plasticized computer animation. Yet here is a swashbuckling picture that’s worth its weight in popcorn.

Castle in the Sky is something of an adventure chase movie, about two children who search for a legendary city behind the clouds. Sheeta, the girl, is pursued by the army, government agents (who will remind you of the Agents from The Matrix), and a gang of pirates; she carries a jeweled family pendant that may hold the key to discovering the city, named “Laputa” after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Sheeta, like every Hayao Miyazaki heroine, is confident and assertive, and would sooner grab a glass bottle and knock out her captors than merely wait to be rescued.

After an assault on a zeppelin, Sheeta escapes both the agents and the pirates, and is discovered by Pazu, a wide-eyed boy who lives in a mountainside mining town. He loves to build airplanes, and dreams of adventure; he practically bursts at the seams when he’s speaking of his late father’s accidental discovery of Laputa. Like Sheeta, he is also an orphan, and becomes a kindred spirit; the blossoming romance is both eloquent and old-fashioned in that classic Hollywood way. “When you fell out of the sky, my heart was pounding,” Pazu tells her. “I knew something wonderful was about to happen.” It’s a great line.

The success of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind enabled Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to create an independent animation studio, where they could create their own unique works. Many of the key players from the Nausicaa film were brought on board, including key animators and composer Joe Hisaishi (whose score is excellent), and Studio Ghibli was born. Castle in the Sky was the first Ghibli release, and fills the requirement of a well-rounded crowd-pleaser. The tone of the film is lighter than Nausicaa, less heavy and serious; a goofy anarchy is scattered throughout. The pirate gang is composed of an older woman named Dora (a dead ringer for Pipi Longstockings’ mother) and her bumbling sons, mama’s boys, all. Outlaws, yes, but disarming characters who grow on you by the end.

Continue reading “Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)”

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984)

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984)

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is one of the true landmarks of animated cinema. Twenty years after its release, in a time when animation evolves by leaps and bounds, it continues to offer challenging ideas and genuinely move audiences. In Japan, Nausicaa routinely places at the top, or near the top, of every poll of the best anime films (it spent ten years at the top of Animage magazine’s readers’ polls, for instance). Here is a science-fiction adventure with ideas, with vision and heart.

Hiyao Miyazaki made a name for himself animating and directing various movies and TV shows during the late 1960s and ‘70s, including popular shows such as Future Boy Conan and Lupin the Third. After directing his first feature film, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro, and without any studio projects, he directed his energies on an original manga (graphic novel) saga. In 1982, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind appeared as a monthly serial in Animage, and quickly proved so popular that demand arose for a movie. After early resistance, Miyazaki relented, on the condition that he direct the picture, and his longtime colleague Isao Takahata produce. They enlisted Topcraft Studios (best known for the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit), hired a skilled musician named Joe Hisaishi to compose the score, and released the film to theaters in 1984.

Based on a 12th Century Japanese folk tale (“The Princess Who Loved Insects”), Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to live amongst poisonous fungus forests, mutant insects, and herds of giant blue-eyed slugs called Ohmu. The heroine, Nausicaa, is a chieftain’s daughter, lives in a small nation in a protected valley, and shares an empathic bond with the insects of her world; she firmly believes that humans and insects can peacefully coexist, despite the ever-present threat of the growing forests. She’s the archetype of the Miyazaki heroine: strong-willed, confident, and full of spirit.

The Valley of Wind suddenly finds itself in the middle of a war between two warring nations, Torumekia and Pejitei. The combatants disrupt the relative peace of the Valley and start shoving their weight around. A God-Warrior, the ancient weapons responsible for the destruction of civilization, is unearthed. Both sides vow not only to defeat their enemy, but to burn back the forests and reclaim nature. This sets the stage for a number of action set-pieces (including some terrific aerial combat scenes), moments of quiet introspection, a fair amount of light humor, and a search (by Nausicaa) to solve the mystery of the mutated environment.

All the great hallmarks of Miyazaki are present in full: self-confident female characters, concern for the environment, solid compositions, an optimistic humanism, and lots of flying. When you look at the history of animated movies, you realize how groundbreaking Nausicaa really is. There are no song-and-dance numbers, no wise-cracking animal sidekicks, no simple-minded moral lesson for the kiddies, nothing in the traditional Disney mold. Yet, this also is not some juvenile adolescent sex fantasy ala Ralph Bakshi or Heavy Metal. Nor is this a clone of Star Wars or JRR Tolkein. This is a new style of animated film, opening the doors for movies like Waking Life and Millennium Actress and Whisper of the Heart and Princess Mononoke.

Continue reading “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984)”

Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Twenty observations about the new Hayao Miyazaki movie, Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea, which opened in the US this weekend:

1) A lovely romantic children’s film that celebrated love and affection and a thrill for discovery. This movie was made for 5-year-olds and anyone who still connects to their inner child. It’s Totoro with fish.

2) Hayao Miyazaki’s personal story of his family, of his wife who sacrificed her career to raise their children. There is actually an essay in Starting Point that addresses this, and you’ll be shocked to see how much of what Miyazaki wrote about appears in this movie.

3) Miyazaki’s defiant defense of hand-drawn animation. I had to constantly remind myself: this was all made by hand. It’s astonishing. Just watching the screen full of people and things moving around, in that wonderful watercolor-painted style.

4) I’ve never seen water used so effectively in any movie. It was like the waters were a whole cast of characters in and of themselves. Thick water, runny water, water that bubbles and gurgles like blobs, torrents of rain and wind.

5) Miyazaki understands the iconic (Scott McCloud’s term) nature of animation. He understands the value of depicting symbolic action, or something “magical” that’s from a child’s point of view. Why Americans insist on taking animated images literally, I’ll never know. The question is not, “What is this that stands before me?” but “What does this mean?”

One great image – the father’s hands struggling to squeeze down Ponyo, to force the growing child into a baby again. I watched that and felt like shouting out, “Hey, that’s my adolescence! I was there, man!”

Same thing with the crashing waves against the rocks early in the movie, and the fish-waves in the storm. I felt like I was seeing these through the eyes of a 5-year-old child. To Sosuske, the tsunami waves were living things, characters with eyes and faces. To the mother, they were just crashing waves to avoid.

6) All the scenes with Ponyo’s sisters were stunning. I was completely spellbound by their movements, their rhythm and flow. In one scene, the entire screen was filled with them, and it was astonishing to admire the artists’ skill. In another scene, they grew into a more humanoid form, and I realized that they look just like their mother.

7) There’s a moment during the storm when the old women are sitting in wheelchairs, watching out the windows. They appear so sad, so lonely. They have no family, their bodies are failing, and the workers at the nursing home are treating them like, well, the way elderly people are typically treated by the young. I didn’t think the attendant, Lisa’s co-worker, was mean or cruel; this was a carelessness of the young.

These scenes of the old women only made me feel more frustrated with Pixar’s Up than ever.

8) Hokusai’s paintings appear to be quoted in this movie. That similar moment in My Neighbors the Yamadas springs to mind, only more beautiful and colorful.

9) The title sequence is spectacular. It’s an open celebration of traditional cel animation. Have you noticed shots where some objects (boats, buildings) have slight shadows behind them? I was reminded of that weird “shadow” effect in cel-drawn cartoons, where the cels aren’t completely flat against the background when photographed. Is there a word for that? It was remarkable to see that effect, a mistake, really, appear in a Miyazaki movie.

This is a movie that celebrates hand-drawn animation, and it deliberately throws the gauntlet at the feet of the cgi programmers. So your machine can render water? Top this!

10) I felt the star of the first half was not Sosuske or Ponyo, but Lisa, the mother, the Wife, the Miyazaki Heroine in Blue. She dominated her scenes. The second half of the movie belonged to Sosuske and Ponyo.

Movie Review: Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008)
Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008)

11) I want one of those little boats! Can you really run a boat on steam power like that?

12) I knew Miyazaki dealt with pollution of the earth in this movie, but when I saw the scenes of dredging the ocean, with its endless volumes of garbage and plastic, I wept. This is not something sprung from the director’s imagination. This is real life. If anything, the “plastic ocean” is worse.

It’s no wonder Miyazaki prays for the tsunami to sweep the city away.

13) Speaking of which, Miyazaki sticks his apocalyptic revenge fantasies into the middle of a children’s movie. And it works. How does he get away with that?

14) This movie is a celebration of water; not water as a resource, or a commodity, or a landfill; but water as a miracle.

Now I’m thirsty and deeply worried about the global water supply.

15) John Lasseter’s Disney dub is superb. I was amazed. I’ll have to watch a couple more times, and see the movie in its Japanese soundtrack, but I couldn’t think of anything that was wrong or misplaced. They even kept the honorific names, like -san.

Despite the famous names of the child actors, they played their roles perfectly. In five years, Miley Cyrus will be in and out of rehab, broken by the child celebrity machine, because that is what the machine is designed to do. This business grinds up human souls and hurls them into the sea like plastic. There is also a negative side.

16) I think if long red hair and ’60s striped mod suits make a comeback, Peter Max should get royalties.

17) I think adults need to get away from this obsession with having to explain everything. Life is not an episode of CSI. Ponyo opens with the man in the Peter Max suit pouring elixirs from tall jars into the ocean deep with something that resembles a turkey baster. Why is this? What is he doing? What is in these magic elixirs? I don’t have a clue and I don’t care. I also don’t want to hear pseudo-scientific arguments about that moon in the sky, that giant woman in the water, or how that particular marriage works out.

18) The ending felt anti-climactic, and very abrupt. Miyazaki ends his movies the way John Lennon ends side one of Abbey Road. Steady…Steady…Wait for it…Stop here! We’re done. In his movies, the final scene is pretty arbitrary, anyway. It’s just something you must make your peace with.

Miyazaki usually places his climax earlier in the film, before the final scene or two. It’s largely due to the way he makes movies, which is incredibly hectic, seat-of-the-pants, almost completely improvised after the first act.

19) I was reminded of Totoro in some moments, like Ponyo running around the house, and the second Panda Kopanda, with its flooded house. And the spectacular action sequence of Ponyo and her sisters rushing from their underwater home to the surface, an ocean of water and fish in an exuberant explosion, directly quotes the climax from Hakujaden, Japan’s first color animation movie from 1958. Now that I think about it, Hakudaden does share a certain sensibility with Ponyo, with its innocent romance and magical father figure.

20) The “remixed” Disney version of the Ponyo song is fake, processed, Autotuned mud. I reflect on the popularity of such “music” and weep for the mindless fools who consume it all. But I’m a child of the punk-rock revolution, and this sort of thing kind of goes against our religion. That said, this “song” only plays during the second half of the closing credits. The normal version of the Ponyo song – just the children singing – plays during the first half (but strangely enough, still with Autotune – I have to laugh at this).

Oh, and did you notice that Hayao Miyazaki’s name appears buried deep among the staff members? Naturally, he appears as a pig, but he does not fly a plane, nor have long talks with Robert Westall.

Should I mention once more how breathtaking the visuals in this movie are? The color design is simply smashing. And should I mention again the personal elements of Ponyo? Hayao Miyazaki has truly become the Fellini of our age.

He appears to be making peace with his family, and this worries me when I realize his age. Most of his peers have retired or died. I hope he continues to make wonderful movies for years and years and years, but this is greedy of me, and I know it. Ponyo is a story told by an old man to a young child, and he celebrates both. And they join together and dance and imagine faces on the ocean waves.

Technically, there are more than 20 observations about Ponyo in this essay. But if I actually sat down and counted them all, I’d have to change the title, and I really prefer keeping the title just the way it is. Besides, it’s late and the adult part of the brain is no fun. It’s the part of you that doesn’t believe in candle-powered boats and goldfish that grow up to be little girls. Keep that part of yourself under armed guard at all times.