So, having put it off for a while, I just watched Ponyo (a downloaded fansub, note to distributors: if you want to fight piracy, get us actual releases sooner, please). In my usual fashion I will make a brief, highly late-to-the-party post about it.
In brief: I enjoyed it. In slightly less brief: I enjoyed it, and so will you, but for God's sake don't try to take the plot too seriously. Miyazaki's films in general are very much kid friendly, but appreciable by all ages, while Ponyo is definitely a film for children (and Ghibli nerds). The story is deeply weird and very fanciful, dictated largely by childish fairy-tale logic (I guess that's magic realism). The events that occur actually almost bring about the end of the world, but it's glossed over with an infantile naiveté (an aspect that I know some people take great issue with). Part of me feels that there could've been a greater sense of actual conflict, and that some of the characters could've done with better established motivations, for example, maybe Sosuke could've had a long-held wish for a younger sister, thus justifying his unquestioning acceptance of Ponyo. However, even as I type that there's a little goblin in the back of my head making a fuss and saying no, that's clichéd and stupid, it doesn't need that because it's all about pure, chidlike innocence and the wide-eyed wonder and absolutely, utterly unconditional love that goes with it. Maybe it's right.
Visually it's pretty stunning, too. The first English trailer should give you a fair idea of that (even though, in the fashion that should've died out after the Warrior of the Wind version of Nausicaa, it completely misrepresents the plot and the feel of the film as a whole; compare the Japanese trailer). I felt the colours were a bit garish in some parts, but largely they were as beautiful as you'd expect from any Japanese production. Previews of the western release suggest they've been rather tastelessly contrast-enhanced, though, especially the greens. I don't think it's Youtube compression, either. Compare: on the left, Japanese DVD rip; on the right, this preview clip.
Another point I should make is that I was really stunned by the sheer amount of animation, especially in the first half of the movie. And even more stunned to learn that apparently Miyazaki himself insisted on drawing alot of the waves and water himself, and this is certainly one of the most amazing aspects. Some of the characters came across as mushy and unconstructed at times, though. In some cases it sort of worked (such as Ponyo when she's morphing between her fish and human forms), and in others not so much (such as with Ponyo's mother, who just came across as a bit creepy). In fact, the water was often drawn more solidly than the characters.
Liquids drawn like this will be familiar to any Miyazaki fan, but this film really does take it to quite another level. You'll have seen Ponyo running on the fish-waves in the trailers, but the shot on the left above doesn't seem to appear in any of them, and it's pretty mind-boggling.
Oh, one more thing. I was initially rather put off by the design of Ponyo herself as portrayed in promotional images, but in motion she's actually very charming. There's alot of cuteness in this film, in fact. If you liked Mei in My Neighbour Totoro you'll probably like Ponyo.
I generally object to having to suffer through the invariably painful English dubs of Ghibli films, but I will almost certainly be going to see this when it comes to theatres over here...on February 5th 2010. Great. I may even buy the DVD in June as long as the colours aren't butchered as the above example suggests. It may be rather embarassing since I imagine alot of kids will be in the theatre, but I'll also be curious to see how they react to different parts of the film, and whether Miyazaki's really hit the right marks in trying to make it appealing specifically to youngins. That's the real acid test.
It's also got me thinking again about Howl's Moving Castle. I hated that film when I first saw it, primarily for the reason that the whole plot seemed dictated by nonsensical fairy-tale logic, and none of the characters seemed motivated. As I said above, Ponyo featured this in spades and yet I didn't mind it at all. I guess Howl didn't really sell itself as a children's film to me, so maybe that aspect just didn't work as well, or perhaps I just need to see it again and divorce it in my mind from the largely terrible English dub (I saw it first in theatres, with said dub, which may have injured my opinion of it).
Also, very briefly, I watched The Iron Giant the other day. I don't think it's the cinematic masterpiece so many blow it up to be, as it is, in terms of plot, just a standard animated family film. I didn't like the human characters either. But I loved the Giant. Especially the way they did his lip-sync (what little there was of it). In particular, I liked how they didn't try to accurately replicate how a human mouth works (as might be the case in, say, the modern Transformers films) but sought to achieve the same ends by different means: allowing his teeth to move up and down independantly, and his jaw to slide up and down at its hinge. The part where he says "I am not a gun" is particularly delicious.