This month’s The Princess And The Frog sees Disney go back to the drawing board. Hayao Miyazaki has never left it.
In fact, his latest 2D marvel sets a record for the Japanimation godhead’s oeuvre: it uses roughly 170,000 separate cels, none of them computer-generated. All that finger-cramping labour isn’t just a reaction against the pixel-pushers.
With its pastel palette and loose line-work, Ponyo’s handmade look fits the film’s child-like spirit like a mitten. Its kid’s-eye-view harks back not only to Miyazaki masterworks My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service but to his ’70s TV venture Panda! Go Panda!, which taught us that flooding can actually be fun.
Here, we’re already swimming with the fishes in a wondrous, wordless opening sequence, acquainting us with sea-sorcerer Fujimoto’s underwater kingdom. School’s soon out for one of his offspring, the wayward Ponyo, who flees to the surface, becomes a little girl and pals up with a boy, Sosuke.
Fujimoto’s swiftly on his daughter’s tail, though Miyazaki downplays any urgency, conflict or menace. That’s no criticism: the film’s great delight is its gentle, guileless disposition; the story lopes casually, organically along, taking each surreal development in its stride.
Sure, there are big set-pieces – a breath-stealing tsunami that chases Sosuke to his cliff-top doorstep – but Miyazaki invests as much attention in the little moments, like the tots tucking into their tea, or the lighting of a candle that will power an outsized toy boat.
Few filmmakers share such a delicate understanding of the way nippers talk, think, act, react. True, the movie’s underlying plea for eco-stability feels off-balance in the hazy, Cocoon-riffing, vaguely listless last third.
But schmaltz? Not a drop, despite the cutesy casting in this English dub (supervised by John Lasseter) of Miley Cyrus’ little sis and the Jonas Bros’ baby sib.
Bar the climactic dip, another Ghibli charmer that finds story, subject matter and style in freewheeling harmony. You haven’t seen the sea until you’ve seen it through Miyazaki’s goggles.