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Ponyo Blu-ray & DVD Combo Review

Ponyo movie poster Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo - Ponyo on the Cliff)

Theatrical Release: July 19, 2008 (Japan); August 14, 2009 (US) / Running Time: 101 Minutes (Japanese), 103 Minutes (English) / Rating: G

Writer/Director: Hayao Miyazaki

English Voice Cast: Cate Blanchett (Gran Mamare), Noah Cyrus (Ponyo), Matt Damon (Koichi), Tina Fey (Lisa), Frankie Jonas (Sosuke), Kurt Knutsson (The Newscaster), Cloris Leachman (Noriko), Liam Neeson (Fujimoto), Jennessa Rose (Kumiko), Lily Tomlin (Toki), Betty White (Yoshie), Akiko Yano (Ponyo's Sisters)

Japanese Voice Cast: Yuria Nara (Ponyo), Hiroki Doi (Sosuke), Tomoko Yamaguchi (Lisa), Kazushige Nagashima (Koichi), George Tokoro (Fujimoto), Yuki Amami (Gran Mamare), Akiko Yano (Ponyo's Sisters), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Toki), Tomoko Naraoka (Yoshie), Tokie Hidari (Kayo), Rumi Hiiragi (The Young Mother), Emi Hiraoka (Kumiko), Shinichi Hatori (The Newscaster)

Buy Ponyo from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Combo / 2-Disc DVD / DVD + Ponyo Plush Gift Set


and Kelvin Cedeno

Disney must be glad that Hayao Miyazaki never really followed through on the retirement plans he announced back in 1998. The plans came on the heels of the Japanese animation director's demanding production Princess Mononoke. In 1999, Miramax-branded Mononoke became the first film from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli that Disney released to theaters as part of a new deal with Ghibli's then-parent company Tokuma Shoten Publishing.
Since then, three other Miyazaki-directed fantasies have made their way to theaters, with Disney distributing in many parts of the world. The films may not have had a huge effect on the Mouse's bottom lines theatrically, but they've bolstered the studio's animation video library and supplied prestige.

Miyazaki can't be dissatisfied either. Although tremendously popular in Japan, his work was virtually unknown to Western audiences. That is no longer the case; Miyazaki's films are exalted as high art by critics, award panels, and Pixar/Disney animation chief John Lasseter, who has now thrice executive-produced the English language translations.

Ponyo, Miyazaki's latest, is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (a fairy tale far less celebrated today than Disney's loose 1989 animated retelling of it). The film opens with a prologue void of dialogue. It depicts an androgynous red and white fish with a full head of orange hair hitching a ride to the ocean surface on one of many rising jellyfish. The lone fish, who somehow resembles a gummy candy, gets stuck in a glass jar near the coast, but is rescued by a young boy. (Words are finally spoken at the 7-minute mark.) The boy, 5-year-old Sosuke, fills a bucket with water and adopts the fish more as friend than pet. We learn that it's a female goldfish, one Sosuke names Ponyo before carefully taking her to his school.

Five-year-old schoolboy Sosuke rescues a goldfish he names Ponyo. With her uniformly smaller younger sisters cheering her on, a newly human Ponyo makes her move for land.

With cute Ponyo around spouting water at people and gobbling down ham, life immediately becomes more fun for Sosuke, who lives on a cliff above a harbor town. With his father Koichi a ship captain indefinitely (though evidently not too distantly) at sea, Sosuke's mother Lisa is basically a single mom who juggles parenting with her job at a senior women's center.

Sosuke and Ponyo's friendship is threatened by Fujimoto, an effeminate undersea wizard to whom ocean waves (that resemble blue fish, complete with eyes) answer. A former human who now hates the species, anthropomorphic Fujimoto looks to reclaim the goldfish, who we come to learn is the biggest and oldest of his countless daughters. Ponyo does not share her father's disgust for mankind. In fact, she reveals her verbal capabilities by happily proclaiming her love for Sosuke (and later, ham).

While Dad tries to keep her seabound, Ponyo begins to will herself human, sprouting arms and legs, then plotting an escape. The transformation has consequences, threatening Ponyo's modest magical powers and, more importantly, the entire balance of nature. Chaotic global phenomena result from Ponyo's transfiguration. She rides back into Sosuke's life on giant tidal waves that leave most of the town underwater.

Ponyo's mother, Gran Mamare, is a sea goddess. Her father, Fujimoto, is an evil wizard who looks like a lady. One wonders how they got together and produced hundreds and hundreds of goldfish children. Lisa and Sosuke try to drive through the torrential downpour that's befallen their coastal hometown.

Ponyo is a pretty delightful film. It is fairly straightforward and contains very few cultural oddities. Some Miyazaki acolytes may resent that this is noticeably less complex and less ambiguous than a number of the director's past efforts (including 2001's Spirited Away, which public opinion has rendered his opus). Certainly, being different is a huge part of all anime's appeal. But Ponyo is no less charming and is anything but trivial. The closest kin in the Ghibli canon would have to be the source of the studio mascot, the wonderful, accessible My Neighbor Totoro. Ponyo provides a similar feel and comparable all-ages appeal.

While everything may be spelled out clearly and the crux of the story borrowed from Andersen, Ponyo still provides much creativity to admire and reflect upon. This film boasts more universal appeal than past Ghibli outings, but Miyazaki still gives it his signature spin. Our attention is often directed to family and to food. Grounding the restrained fantasy in a child's perspective of reality truly heightens the film dramatically. As in the director's best work and the most memorable of all cinema, humanity shines through.

Miyazaki's style hasn't changed much in the thirty or so years he's been making films. His distinctive animation couldn't be further from the kind of realism and believable motion other studios strive for, but it is warm and beautiful in its own way. Presumably, this story is set in the present day, but typical for the director, technology is largely absent. Beyond the appearance of automobiles and a widescreen television, there is no evidence of the indistinct setting's period, rendering this tale fairly timeless.

Ponyo and Sosuke get their first look at each other since she turned human in a magic moment Lisa's side view mirror shows her watching. Not all of the old ladies Lisa's workplace appreciate Sosuke's handmade gifts. The cranky Toki mistakes her boat for a grasshopper, an analogy she pursues further in the original Japanese version.

Disney has once again attracted some impressive big name talent to perform the English dubbing, which involves more than straight translation. A-list screen stars Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon all voice supporting roles. In a bit of dubious casting that some may object to, the two lead roles are voiced by a Cyrus and a Jonas; not the most famous ones, but Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, the younger siblings of the Disney Channel stars. Cyrus fares decently in the title part, but the bonus Jonas is a bit weak in the more demanding role.
Though not generally known for their vocal work, the other actors are fine, including Tina Fey as Sosuke's mother and comediennes Betty White, Lily Tomlin, and Cloris Leachman as the nursing home's focal old biddies. Perhaps inevitably, shades of some of the actors' past roles crawl into mind, like Blanchett's Lord of the Rings elf and, even though his character looks like Phil Spector in '70s David Bowie glam, the paternal instincts of Neeson's Taken dad.

Although the differences between the original Japanese and Disney's 2009 English language versions are fairly minor, both cuts are truly and happily preserved on Ponyo's home video releases. The English dub actually runs two minutes longer, but that can probably be attributed to the Walt Disney Pictures logos and, less forgivably, Cyrus and Jonas' hip-hop remix that the needlessly covered end credits song devolves into. The variations between the translation subtitles and the English dub tend to be minor differences in expression; Sosuke's classmate provides a less physical putdown of Ponyo in the dub, the senior ladies say slightly different things to Sosuke, eating dinner out isn't mentioned. One slightly more striking alteration comes in one of Sosuke's climactic lines. The Japanese version preserves the original credits and the use of symbols and native spelling onscreen in the sea communication scene. Perhaps the most surprising retention is the film's innocent but unlikely lactation talk.

Per tradition, Ponyo's robust box office earnings in Asia didn't translate to hit status in the US. But both the film's North American theater count (927) and gross ($15 million) set records for a Disney/Ghibli production. As far as money goes, only four anime films have ever earned more than Ponyo did stateside; three of them had "Pokιmon" in the title and the fourth was Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie. However, should you think that imported Japanese animation presently represents anything but a niche market in the US, consider that even blink-and-miss flops like Titan A.E., Astro Boy, Arthur and the Invisibles, and Disney's own Valiant grossed more than Ponyo. In its defense, Ponyo made its money in less than half the theaters that the CG-animated others enjoyed.

At a time when theatrical exhibitors worldwide are publicly contesting Disney's plans for Tim Burton's new Alice in Wonderland to reach DVD just 12 weeks after opening in theaters, Ponyo's journey to home video seems remarkably tardy. The film arrives on disc six and a half months since hitting American cinemas and 19½ months since debuting in Japan. The release, bumped from the crowded pre-Christmas weeks, was probably meant to capitalize on an anticipated Academy Award nomination in the Best Animated Feature category. But Ponyo never got one, the wild card bonus slots instead going to Disney's The Princess and the Frog and unknown Irish spoiler The Secret of Kells. That's another notch down for Miyazaki, following his win for Spirited Away and nomination for Howl's Moving Castle, and while getting shut out of a five-deep field sort of stings, the omission doesn't much undermine Ponyo's status as one of the best-reviewed films of 2009, a year unusually rich in quality animation.

Disney treats Ponyo to three releases next week, each missing something from the others. The subject of this review is the Blu-ray + DVD Combo.

Buy Ponyo: Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

BD: 1.85:1 Widescreen, DTS-HD 5.1 (English), Dolby 5.1 (Japanese, French)
DVD: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Japanese, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English translation, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled and Captioned
Release Date: March 2, 2010
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in 2-Disc DVD and DVD & Ponyo Plush Gift Set

VIDEO and AUDIO

Ponyo's Blu-ray replicates its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Time and again Disney has delivered exceptional high-definition presentations, and this first Ghibli entry into the format is no different. Some have argued that hand-drawn animation doesn't benefit from increased resolution since there are no finely rendered textures. That idea has been proven wrong before with Disney's catalogue titles, and Ponyo also verifies how beautiful such art can be. Character outlines are razor-sharp, with everything in perfect focus, even long shots.
Anime Studio Pro
The bold, vivid color palette leaps off the screen with nary a flaw in sight. Even with its simplistic animation style, Ponyo offers a reference-quality image.

The DTS-HD 5.1 track remains quite active considering how subdued the story is. The sound booth-recorded dialogue is expectantly crisp and clear without sounding too artificial. The musical score is low key, but not to the point of disappearing altogether. During more intense sequences, it makes itself heard, feeling rich and clearly defined. The sound effects are consistently making use of the sound field. There's always some sort of ambience (whether it's above or below the sea) to makes the settings more believable. A standout sequence involving a raging storm shows impressive surround effects.

Ponyo looks pretty amazing on its DVD's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. While some might find this style of anime crude or simple, its allure should also be evident in this great, vibrant picture. The element is immaculate, the distinctly Ghibli color palette is bold and consistent, and the closest one can find to a shortcoming is extremely minimal artifact ringing. You won't even spot this unless you're looking very closely for it. The active Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack delivers many nice effects. It nicely displays the wonderful Wagnerian score supplied by Miyazaki's regular composer Joe Hisaishi. Whether enjoyed in Japanese or English, the mix engulfs tactfully and efficiently.

Married couple Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy briefly discuss producing the English language version of the film in "Meet Ponyo." A fanboyish John Lasseter douses a somewhat awkward Hayao Miyazaki with praise in "A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki & John Lasseter." Young children admire a Ponyo exhibit as Miyazaki identifies them as his primary audience in "Creating 'Ponyo'."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

This is one of the rare instances where those buying a Disney Blu-ray combo pack without yet owning a Blu-ray player miss out on some standard DVD extras.
Like most other Disney/Ghibli titles, Ponyo's only DVD release is a two-disc set. Only the first of those two discs makes it to the combo here. And unlike past Ghibli sets, the majority of the DVD's bonus features have been relegated to Disc 2.

That leaves us with only one DVD extra on this set, "Disc Introduction - Meet Ponyo" (3:20). In this short piece, the husband-wife executive producers of the film's English version, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, briefly discuss voice casting and translating for US audiences, with some video proof of them getting the approval of Miyazaki and John Lasseter along the way.

The Disc 2 DVD extras are indeed included on the Blu-ray disc and are all presented in high definition. These start with a standard staple of Studio Ghibli home video releases: the original Japanese storyboards. The Blu-ray presentation of these differs from the DVD ones as the boards are presented via a picture-in-picture track. While that seems like the sensible thing to do on a Blu-ray, DVD owners have the advantage of seeing the shockingly detailed and colorful artwork fill up the entire 16:9 frame. Still, even when relegated to top right-hand corner thumbnails, the storyboards add value to the set.

The second bonus feature listing, World of Ghibli, leads to two sections: Behind the Studio and Enter the Lands. The first begins with "A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki & John Lasseter" (3:32), essentially an exchange of praise between the two friends. Lasseter gushes about his love for Miyazaki's films and asks a few questions in regards to the creation of Ponyo as a character. A couple of interesting notes pop up from Miyazaki, but this remains a glossy clip overall.

More satisfying is "Creating Ponyo" (3:57). Here, Miyazaki explains various storytelling decisions he made such as the personification of the sea along with his own opinions on how humans relate to nature. He also touches upon the contrast between Ponyo and Sosuke. It's tight and informative. "Ponyo & Fujimoto" (2:58) takes a look at the relationship between Ponyo and her overbearing father Fujimoto. Miyazaki reveals some of his real life inspirations for the latter character and offers his own thoughts on how Japanese fathers tend to behave today.

Studio Ghibli's nursery and wooden play area are briefly showcased in the aptly titled "The Nursery." "Producer's Perspective: Telling the Story" features storyboard art done by Miyazaki himself that is so elaborate and detailed that it comes across more as concept artwork. The quaint Japanese harbor village of Tomonoura bears more than a passing resemblance to the "Locations of Ponyo."

In "The Nursery" (1:59), producer Toshio Suzuki reveals how the story was originally going to be more heavily centered on the nursery briefly seen in the beginning of the film. The origin of Studio Ghibli's own nursery is briefly recounted, as well. Suzuki returns in "Producer's Perspective: Telling the Story" (2:27) in which he offers an explanation of the storyboard process. Compliments are given to Miyazaki on his knack for cementing key character moments within just a few rough storyboard drawings.

"The Locations of Ponyo" (9:35) is an excerpt from the 2008 Japanese television special "The Scenery of Ghibli." After vacationing in the seaside town of Tomonoura in 2005, Miyazaki was inspired to use the locale as the setting for his next film. The documentary excerpt gives an overview of the town and the elements that directly made their way into the film.

Also found on the concurrently-released sets of Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki's Delivery Service, "Scoring Miyazaki" (7:19) is an interview with composer Joe Hisaishi. He says a few words about each of the those films (and Ponyo), shedding some light on the musical styles he sought and how they were influenced. One can only assume that a future version of this will tackle Hisaishi's other scores such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle on the inevitable re-releases of those titles.

Next come two original Japanese trailers (3:21), both welcome inclusions at a time when trailers rarely appear with the feature film in question.

The curiously-named Noah Cyrus performs her lines as Ponyo enthusiastically "Behind the Microphone." No it's not "Mossy Iron Giants" but "Castle in the Sky" (a.k.a. "Laputa") represented by this page of the interactive Studio Ghibli "Enter the Lands" tour. The main menu of Ponyo's primary DVD is tasteful and serene.

"Behind the Microphone: The Voices of Ponyo" (6:04) follows the same format found on all of Disney's previous Studio Ghibli releases. The actors used in the English dub are briefly shown in the recording studio and share a few quick sound bites about their characters and the film itself. It's superficial and promotional, but appreciated, regardless.

The final features under Behind the Studio are actually taken from the three other Ghibli releases that street with this one. They include "Creating My Neighbor Totoro" (2:59), "Creating Kiki's Delivery Service (2:27), and "Castle in the Sky: Character Sketches" (2:40). The details of these are best left to their respective reviews. While their inclusion is undoubtedly done as a means of cross promotion, they're nice to have.

Speaking of cross promotion, World of Ghibli's other heading is Enter the Lands. This offers an interactive map representing all the different settings from the studio's library. Each setting contains clickable characters and objects that lead to narrated film clips and montages. As of now, the only worlds open are for the March 2010 titles (Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Ponyo),
but it's obvious that the plan is for more worlds to be unlocked as more re-releases come.

Since this section is meant for promotional purposes, when one accesses the land for the feature film (in this case, Ponyo), the clips are replaced with a simple, five-question personality quiz. This reviewer's result was that of the plucky title character. The quiz is standard fare, but the interactive map is a diverting way to sample other Miyazaki features. One can't help but like something that unifies the Studio Ghibli roster in a manner similar to Disney's own animated classics.

The DVD loads with trailers for Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition, Toy Story 3, and March's Miyazaki DVDs. Its Sneak Peeks menu holds these plus promos for Muppets Studio DC: Almost Live Extended Edition, The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 on Blu-ray, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, Disney's Friends for Change project, genuine Disney DVDs, Disney Movie Rewards, and Disney Blu-ray.

In a curious move for Disney, the Ponyo Blu-ray does not feature a pop-up menu system. Pressing the appropriate button on one's remote leads one back to the full main menus patterned after both the DVD counterpart and other Ghibli releases. The DVD's dignified main menu cycles through still art and video while piano score plays. The static submenus give us a simplified rendering of the same tasteful design.

With just two discs (the least a Disney Blu-ray has carried in over eight months), Ponyo stays as slim as any high-def release in terms of packaging. Covered by an embossed cardboard slipcover, the blue case holds a Disney Movie Rewards code, a Disney Blu-ray promotional booklet, and a sheet advertising Ponyo books and its concurrent Ghibli DVDs.

Ponyo (formerly Brunhilde) races on the backs of forceful fish waves in an effort to reunite with her best friend Sosuke. Sosuke and Ponyo respond to the floods the way most 5-year-olds would: she enlarges a toy boat into a fully functional one and they set sail.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Hayao Miyazaki delivers another interesting and enjoyable film in the sweet, charming Ponyo. It isn't perfect; there are a few loose ends, it gets a little weird late in the game, and it won't be to everyone's liking (some have called it more childish than past Studio Ghibli output).
But it's humorous, memorable, fun, and a refreshing alternative to all the interesting varieties of animation around nowadays.

The movie's feature presentation is ideal. Picture and sound are dazzling and many will appreciate the option to experience Ponyo as either Japanese or American moviegoers did, with the subtitled and dubbed cuts representing two entirely valid and distinct versions of the film. The one disappointment regarding this Blu-ray/DVD combo lies in the lack of DVD bonus features, with the supplements disc not making the cut. If you're already hooked on Blu-ray and don't ever want to look back, then the combo should serve you well.

As someone whose upscaling DVD player and HDTV do not at all leave craving Blu-ray's higher resolution, I feel Ponyo's two DVD-only releases are more attractive. At current pricing, the two-disc DVD saves you $7 or if you've got a soft spot for soft things, you can get the two-disc DVD along with a Ponyo fish plush doll for the cost of the Blu-ray combo.

Buy Ponyo from Amazon.com: 2-Disc DVD / Blu-ray + DVD Combo / Buy DVD + Plush Gift Set

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
2009 Animated Films: Up • Coraline • Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
New: Kiki's Delivery Service • My Neighbor Totoro • Castle in the Sky • Old Dogs • Little Einsteins: Animal Expedition
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki: Howl's Moving Castle • Spirited Away • Porco Rosso • Nausicaδ of the Valley of the Wind
Produced by Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli: Pom Poko • My Neighbors the Yamadas • Whisper in the Heart • The Cat Returns
The Little Mermaid • The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea • The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning • Finding Nemo
Lilo & Stitch (2-Disc Big Wave Edition) • Star Wars: The Clone Wars • The Secret of the Magic Gourd
From Producer Frank Marshall: Who Framed Roger Rabbit • Eight Below • The Spiderwick Chronicles • The Young Black Stallion



The English Voice Cast of Ponyo:
Cate Blanchett: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button • Elizabeth: The Golden Age • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Betty White: The Golden Girls: Seasons 1-7 • The Proposal | Tina Fey: 30 Rock: Season 3 | Lily Tomlin: Desperate Housewives: Season 5
Liam Neeson: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Cloris Leachman: Herbie Goes Bananas • Sky High • The Muppet Show: Season 2 • New York, I Love You • Lake Placid 2 • The Women
Frankie Jonas: Jonas: I Heart Jonas • Rockin' the House | Matt Damon: Ocean's Thirteen • John Grisham's The Rainmaker • The Brothers Grimm

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Reviewed February 26, 2010 / Updated March 3, 2010.