Fast & Furious 6
Director Justin Lin takes the high-speed action franchise to London, with Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson along for the ride
Studio Ghibli grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki returns with a fishy tale
Hayao Miyazaki is renowned the world over for being one of the most creative, visionary minds to come out of the Japanese animation industry - although it wasn't until his 2002 film, Spirited Away, that he achieved something resembling mainstream success in the UK. Ponyo is Miyazaki's first release since 2004's similarly-lauded fantasy epic, Howl's Moving Castle - but those hoping for a spiritual successor to either of those films will find themselves quickly disappointed.
Ponyo carries no pretention of being a "grown-up" fairy tale or fantasy. Instead, the film is a pure children's story, largely devoid of the social and environmental politics that Miyazaki worked into his last few films. This time around, the director concentrates on reworking Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", telling the story of a young "mermaid" (actually a small goldfish with a girl's head) who, through various mystical disruptions, attains human form.
Ponyo is a technical, as well as a thematic divergence for Miyazaki. Unlike Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, which placed great emphasis on surreal and haunting fantasy-based sequences, the visuals in Ponyo are often surprisingly straightforward. One major exception to this rule is the opening scene, an almost hypnotic montage of undersea life that follows Ponyo's father, a Willy Wonka-esque figure named Fujimoto, as he goes about his business creating life in the ocean deeps. In keeping with Ponyo's station as a children's film, it is the real world that becomes enticing and unusual, and through the majority of the story, Ponyo keeps its feet firmly on the ground.
That said, the film's many action sequences are sufficiently diverse and always welcome. The sight of Ponyo running over the raging, storm-fuelled waves, which are represented by giant fishes composed of water is nothing short of breathtaking and immediately memorable. By contrast, even in more sedate moments, the vibrant colours and painted backgrounds still provide plenty to admire. Studio Ghibli has, once again, delivered on every front in terms of the animation.
The English-language dub succeeds in being the best ever applied to a Miyazaki film. Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett (who voice Ponyo's parents) are the biggest names in the credits, but their performances are subtle, never threatening to overwhelm either their characters or the more integral cast members. Indeed, the leads, Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus, manage to tread carefully and brilliantly, demonstrating a range of complex emotions throughout the story without ever sacrificing the childlike quality of the protagonists. It's Tina Fey, however, who almost steals the film with an especially outstanding turn as Lisa, Sosuke's mother, in which she tempers her comic sensibilities to imbue the character with a warm parental ease. Indeed, Fey's performance complements Lisa's modern, flawed-yet-tender personality perfectly, giving an ideal voice to the only genuinely relatable adult in the movie.
Story-wise, there's an almost admirable quality to the way in which Miyazaki throws plot logic to the wind. Some of the events of Ponyo would be terrifying, devastating affairs if they occurred in the real world - but "reality" in Ponyo instead follows childlike reasoning. When Ponyo's transformation unbalances the natural order, the moon falls toward Earth, with the resultant tide submerging Sosuke's entire island. Rather than drowning in their thousands, the townsfolk take to boats for a strange carnival-style parade as they collect those displaced by the water. Rather than worry about the reality of the situation, Miyazaki allows imagination to fuel events, with a story motivated by emotional, rather than practical truths.
How much you appreciate Ponyo, then, relies on how willing you are to divorce it from your expectations of what Miyazaki's films entail. The story is light on substance, big on simplicity. The closest it comes to making a wider point - the environmentally-motivated negativity Fujimoto harbours towards humanity - doesn't develop into much beyond background characterisation. If the film is about anything, it's an appreciation of youthful imagination and childlike wonder - but even then, it doesn't labour the point, flitting from scene to scene, situation to situation with only the loosest of threads emerging. Even the film's final, euphoric moment resolves nothing in any serious manner, simply providing the kind of ending that a fairytale demands.
What Miyazaki has created, then, is pure entertainment, a storybook come to life, aimed squarely at a younger audience.
While Ponyo is engaging enough that it can be enjoyed by anyone, those looking for a dense, multi-layered experience are unlikely to find it. A fantastic looking, inventive and well-acted children's film, but a children's film nonetheless - and that's all it was ever intended to be.
Catherine Bray switches off her inner monologue and finds The Coen Brothers Competition entry, Inside Llewyn Davis, to be one of the most absorbing films of the festival... [caption id="attachment_23
Suffused in a blue-grey wintry light and flecked with brown, beige and burgundy, Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis plays out in a low-key melancholy mood broken only when simmering frustration