A Curious Fairy Tale on a Cliff by the Sea

Ponyo, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki’s latest fantasy, arrives Stateside thanks to the efforts of John Lasseter and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

In the West, the word ‘animation’ may be nearly synonymous with the name Walt Disney. But on the opposite side of the globe, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has for decades been held in parallel esteem to Uncle Walt, with a similar but uniquely Eastern passion for storytelling. It’s only fitting that Disney studios’thanks to chief creative officer John Lasseter’s vision and leadership’has been responsible for bringing many of Miyazaki’s masterpieces to U.S. audiences over the past decade. This month, the studio will release Ponyo, the master’s tenth feature directorial effort during a busy season packed with giant robots and cute CG-animated animals.

Miyazaki’s traditionally animated film, which premiered last year in Japan, made close to $14 million its opening weekend. Widely hailed by international critics as an ‘instant classic’ in line with previous Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, Ponyo has captured awards both for the breathtaking film and its popular musical score from long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi. The story is loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid’but this is no Disney princess tale full of ball gowns and singing crustaceans.

Our heroine is a mermaid, although her form fluctuates from primarily fish-like to that of a young human girl (with a few bizarre transformations in between). When she runs away from her undersea home, a young boy named Sosuke (based on Miyazaki’s memories of his own son at age five) rescues her from the shore, naming her Ponyo. While Ponyo’s god-king father struggles to keep her cloistered under water, her na’ve but pure-hearted antics in returning to Sosuke’s world end up wreaking havoc in both spheres. What develops is a beautifully rendered story of innocence, destruction and love between two very different beings.

The unconventional story raised the question for the Disney/Pixar adaptation team, helmed by Lasseter, of how U.S. audiences would relate to the film. ‘Usually with our movies, we’re having the conversation in reverse; ‘How will our movies translate or work within Japanese culture?’ And now we’re faced with a Japanese film coming to America.’ producer Kathleen Kennedy observes. ‘That being said, the visuals in Ponyo are so extraordinary ‘ it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak Japanese. The visuals tell the story.’

Kennedy has been an admirer of the anime maestro since seeing Princess Mononoke (1999), a film which set her on a quest to meet the director in Tokyo. Along with fellow Ponyo producer and long-time collaborator Frank Marshall, she flew to Japan to meet Miyazaki several years ago, and built a relationship with him and Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki. It was Suzuki who reached out to the producers about bringing Miyazaki’s work Stateside, culminating in the Ponyo collaboration.

America, Ikou!

For Kennedy and Marshall, the first priority in bringing Miyazaki’s feature to the U.S. was to translate the nuances of the script in a manner that nothing was lost. ‘In translating an animated film that will be primarily seen by kids and parents/families, getting the script just right is crucial,’ Kennedy insists. The producer called in Oscar-nominated screenwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), who also co-produced and wrote the English-language version of Kundun, and she was instantly captivated by Miyazaki’s work. Kennedy’s hunch turned out to be spot-on. ‘[Mathison] found a way to bridge the translation gap while preserving the story’s more complex ideas, making sure that the intellectual essence of Miyazaki’s work stayed in tact. That was a big priority for us.’

No less important, says Marshall, was casting the English voices. Young Disney stars Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas star as Ponyo and Sosuke, with supporting roles filled out by an A-list group including Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin and Betty White. ‘One of the most exciting benefits of assembling this wonderful cast, known to U.S. fans, is that they are able to bridge audiences,’ Marshall enthuses, ‘and we are now enabling an American crowd to experience the artistry of a great filmmaker.’

Once the cast was in place, the studio team got to work dubbing and fine-tuning the adapted film. While one can imagine that advances in editing pipelines and lip-synch technology would play a role in this process, Marshall insists that the best tool is also the oldest: Time management. ‘When you are dubbing a film, it is really about a solid post-production schedule,’ he notes, ‘We spent at least four months in and out of the recording studio working with our cast. The team at Pixar did an amazing job!’

Speaking in Scenery

One thing the two producers, as well as the rest of the crew, agree on is the impeccable artistry behind Ponyo‘s animation. Miyazaki himself was heavily involved with the hand-drawn animation, which unlike other recent Studio Ghibli films was left entirely untouched by CG. The director was especially concerned with the sea and waves which play such a crucial role in the film as both a setting and a means of expressing the story’s turmoil. The sheer amount of detail necessitated by this approach resulted in over 170,000 separate images being created for the film, surpassing any other Miyazaki work to date. As Marshall explains succinctly, ‘The film is visually stunning.’

Because of the clarity of the visual storytelling in Ponyo, Kennedy feels that the film will appeal to a larger variety of moviegoers than many that came before it. ‘Our goal is to bring Ponyo to as broad an audience as possible,’ the producer declares, ‘We share a passion with [executive producer] John Lasseter in making sure this goal is achieved. With each release, Miyazaki’s films continue to grow in popularity.’

As for how they think this quintessentially Japanese (and essentially Miyazaki) take on the classic fairytale, as well as the U.S. team’s efforts, will be received by American viewers, Marshall is positive: ‘We think Ponyo is an extraordinary film. It truly is a magical story, and we think audiences will agree.’

It will be interesting to see how Ponyo performs Stateside, but more important than box office bang is continuing the opportunity for American animation fans of all ages to enjoy these Japanese masterpieces. Perhaps Miyazaki himself summed up the cultural hurdles best when he told Entertainment Weekly a few years ago, ‘I can’t believe companies distribute my movies in America. They’re baffling in Japan! I’m well aware there are spots where I’m going to lose the audience ‘ Well, it’s magic. I don’t provide unnecessary explanations. If you want that, you’re not going to like my movie’that’s just the way it is.’

Walt Disney Pictures sets Ponyo free on U.S. shores August 14. For trailers and more interactive fun, visit www.disney.com/ponyo.