Never have I had two more perfect days of cinema than the two that have just passed. I am a total animation fanboy – I love all things 2D, and I feel that animation, when done well, has an ability like no other medium to transport you to a different place, time or world. So when John Lasseter announced that Disney would be returning to 2D animation I was ecstatic – they should never have left, and had no good reason to. I’m not sure why the head honchos in the studio at the time felt that they could only move forward with CG animation, but I’ll not start writing about that, as it will only make me angry.
Meanwhile, another director on the other side of the pacific was still creating masterpiece after masterpiece in the second dimension. Hayao Miyazaki is a hero of mine, and so bear in mind that this review will be directed entirely from a bias, and I don’t intend to try and hide that. Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro are amongst my favourite films ever, whilst the rest of the studios output could hardly be classed as mediocre. The man is a living genius, and the release of one of his films is something that made me salivate with anticipation. Then, here in the UK where the releases of both were delayed, they came out at approximately the same time. So I was in a state of frenzy at the prospect of seeing both The Princess and the Frog and Ponyo. And I left both with that anticipation justified.
I started with Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, directed by masters Clements and Musker, the men behind Aladdin. From the start to the finish, I was in love with this film. It has an energy and joy that is just infectious, and rarely have I left a film smiling as much as I did after this. What Princess does is take classic Disney tropes, use them, lightly poke fun at them and then create something entirely new and brilliant from a tried and tested formula. You’ve heard the plot before, which involves some transmogrification shenanigans, ending up with the two central characters being frogs, befriending a musical crocodile and a cajun firefly. But it is so much more than that.
The characters at first appear to be straight from an old princess film, only this time the princess is a fiesty, likeable waitress who knows the value of hard work. Tiana is engaging throughout, and is a marvellous step up from saps like Cinderella. Forget the fact that she is a black princess – that’s hardly an issue as she spends most of the time green – what’s really a progression for Disney is her actual character and this leading lady is truly someone we can root for. Prince Naveen is also more than just a prince charming, he’s a playboy ukulele player. The comic reliefs – Louis the trumpeting crocodile and Ray the firefly – are perfectly pitched and genuinely funny as well.
But all this is without mentioning the villain. The most terrifying thing since Scar, Keith David’s Dr. Facilier lifts the film whenever he is on screen. Slimy, menacing and hiding a horrifying secret, Facilier is the dark heart of the film, and indeed scenes with him and the mysterious shadow creatures from ‘the other side’ are perhaps too scary for younger children. But as a villain he is an unstoppable force that is an absolute pleasure to watch. It’s just one of the many, many things that is so right about the film, and another reason that Clements and Musker should be praised.
The music of the film has faced some criticism, and while there is nothing to match the timeless songs of the Lion King, the songs are ridiculously catchy, and have a wonderful jazzy feel to them akin to the Jungle Book’s ‘King of the Swingers’. Drafting in Randy Newman to write the songs was an excellent choice, and the film thrums to the beat of the period New Orleans setting. Facilier’s ‘Friends on the Other Side’ does almost rival ‘Be Prepared’, and is even more sinister. It’s one of the ones you’ll be humming once the credits have rolled. My personal favourite, however, is ‘Dig A Little Deeper’, sung by the brilliant Mama Odie. This is the song that will enter the pantheon of all time Disney Greats. It’s magnificent.
The whole film is just so full of a happiness that is hard to quell, and I can’t wait to revisit Disney’s vision of a classic fairy tale again. If there is any justice in the world (which there isn’t) this will win the best animated Oscar.
Yet the biggest crime of the Academy awards this year was the total absence of Ponyo. Perhaps it’s a little too trippy for the academy’s tastes. Maybe it’s just too foreign. Either way, it’s a crime that it didn’t make the shortlist. The clearest thing on show in Miyazaki’s film is the director’s thrilling, vivid imagination. It sets the screen ablaze with vibrant imaginings of an underwater kingdom, or a wall of water that is dragging ships towards it. His worlds are always awash with invention, and Ponyo is no different.
It’s most similar in tone to My Neighbour Totoro, in that it is a loosely plotted ramble through childhood, with an almost unbearably cute lead. Ponyo is an endearing character, even when voiced by Miley Cyrus’ sister. The joy she expresses when seeing things above the water for the first time is palpable, and you can’t help but smile with her. As a new human, she is a hilarious little creature, running round with a lamp, or helping a little baby with a cold. As the 5 year old ‘romantic interest’, Sosuke is equally engaging and fun, whilst his mother (voiced decently by Tina Fey) is believable in everything except her driving ability.
I put romantic interest in inverted commas, because that is not what Ponyo is about. The love seen here is more to do with affection, familial bonds and responsibility. As the absent father breaks promises to his family, Sosuke feels an equal burden to look after Ponyo. It’s dealt with so subtly and beautifully, you know you are watching a master at work. Whilst it may not have the energy of Princess, there is still huge amounts to enjoy in this meandering look at childhood. It’s not Miyazaki’s finest hour, but this director is so good that even films that are in the middle of the list of his best films, its still twice as inventive or heartfelt as the majority of what the multiplexes churn out. The song at the end, however, is terrible.
And it goes without saying that the animation in both of these films is phenomenal. The swamps of the bayou thrive with life in Princess, and the sea is given a character as important as anyone else in Ponyo. When films as good as these are released, it really is dumbfounding why the market relies so much on CG. Their gloss is shown up to be hollowness next to these two. So 2D animation has made a glorious return to our screens, and has done so with such joy and brilliance that I can only hope it is here to stay. But then again, I was bound to say that.