Round 7: Hans ChristianAnderson

Thumbelina  vs. PONYO

 

Who Did It First? Who Did It Better?

            By coincidence, both Bluth and Miyazaki have contested 1989’s The Little Mermaid; Miyazaki by applying his style to create a very different version both more and less (mostly less) true to the original story, and Bluth by using the same lead voice to recreate a different tale by the same author. While neither is the respective director’s greatest success, there is none-the-less a noticeable difference in the results.

Thumbelina: Coming off the failure of Rock-A-Doodle, Bluth was probably feeling the pressure to produce another success like The Land Before Time. Whether it was his own idea or some other party within the companies involved, the result is a slight flick that borrows heavily from Disney right down to the lead actress.

Jodie Benson’s Thumbelina, the little girl no bigger than a human thumb, isn’t the only thing in the movie that’s small; the dilemmas are small, the lessons are small, the action is small, the villains’ schemes are small, and in the end, it is altogether a small movie. And yet, on its own terms, the movie begins to work by making one other thing small; the scope. The challenges the movie presents are not always as demanding or weighty as per standard, yet in the world of Thumbelina, they are the most we, and the cast, need worry about. We zero in on simple issues and are given space to observe, to breathe it in, and it has a quiet charm. Bluth’s animation even manages to make it less bland and more distinct in tone.

When a lonely woman wishes for a child, a witch gives her a flower that produces the tiny Thumbelina upon blooming. Thumbelina’s conflict is self-explanatory, and the movie, trying alittle too hard to make us believe that her size bothers her, gives her a meek, woeful attitude that gets old after showing up one too many times. Still, it also provides her with a character arc, capped off well by the moment she finally stands up for herself.

When the fairy prince Cornelius discovers her, they fall into standard fairy tale love, and their song together titled “Let Me Be Your Wings” is perhaps the movie’s strongest highlight, despite its similarity to “I Can Show You the World”. (The movie also has a Razzie-winning song titled “Marry the Mole” which, like “Welcome to the Good Ship Misery”, is bad but sort of amusing. At least Thumbelina found it catchy.)

The rest of the movie is the lovers’ quest to be reunited after Thumbelina is stolen by an opportunistic toad. She stumbles her way back through the forest, encountering several scheming animals and a few friendly ones. You’d have to look elsewhere for special villains, though Gilbert Gottfried’s Beetle pulls off some amusing moments.

Thumbelina is both sweet and distinct enough to act as a “nostalgic” movie, as it does for me, and I was happy to find aspects of it still charming and enjoyable. I can’t recommend against it. Still, it barely ever rises above “passable”, and the clear attempts to rip off Disney really do get in the way. I can’t quite recommend it either.

Final score: 5.5/10

Ponyo: As director, Ponyo is Miyazaki’s last film to date, a couple projects after the two that are largely considered his best. Here, he takes “The Little Mermaid” and re-imagines it as a story of two five year olds who grow to love each other like family.

In this new version of the story, the king of the sea is now Fujimoto, a wizard of sorts who chose to cut himself off from humanity and develop strange projects. Whether one such project was his daughters, goldfish with human faces rather than mermaids, is a bit uncertain. (The mother is a goddess of the sea, absent from the story until Fujimoto is forced to summon her back.)

One of his daughters slips away to the surface and winds up stuck in a bottle, where a boy named Sōsuke finds her, names her “Ponyo” and shows her some TLC, developing a bond between them. Fujimoto manages to steal her back, but her time on land has developed her own powers to the point where they are worthy of his own, and she soon transforms and escapes to rejoin Sōsuke in the world that has her fascinated. The animation in the sequence that follows resembles an oil painting. Miyazaki’s artwork is creative as ever this time around.

Ponyo is another of Miyazaki’s more simple movies (not to be confused with “simpleminded” movies), and the biggest joy is watching the characters experience wonders just a step more magical than those found in real life. Sometimes less than that. The little fishing town he creates is as well done as the town in Kiki’s Delivery Service, and just day to day life in it is entertaining to observe. (Particularly, I enjoyed how Sōsuke can operate a signal lamp to communicate with his father out at sea.) This goes for many of the characters as well. Sōsuke’s mother is still a young parent, almost as flawed as she is energetic and likable. The retirement home she looks after houses the one character in the movie besides Fujimoto who could stand to change their outlook; a cynical, somewhat paranoid old woman who seems to have trouble trusting others.

But the biggest joy in the movie is Ponyo herself, who bursts with charisma, which might be the first time that such is the word to describe a “cute little girl” character. She’s another improvement on the usual pig-tailed, dewy-eyed, passive-aggressively cutesy kid. Ponyo as a girl is a bit chubby, with short red hair and an energetic, proactive personality.  She has about as much of a clue as the average five year old in a brand new place but doesn’t wait for explanations, preferring actions over words to express herself. Finding out for herself is part of the fun.

But all is not well, as the magic she unleashed while crossing over to the land of men has shaken the balance of the world, which is now beginning to flood. After deciding that Ponyo is where she wants to be, her parents plan a test for Sōsuke, which will restore the balance and, if he passes, give Ponyo permanent humanity. If he fails, Ponyo will become sea foam, about the only thing directly taken from the source.

When the town floods, Ponyo, using the same tools that made her a girl, turns Sōsuke’s toy boat into a real one, and they travel together in a dreamlike sequence that is the movie’s best. Fujimoto sets up an elaborate ruse for Sōsuke’s test and puts it into action when they arrive. The ending effectively creates and summarizes the problems with this movie. After setting up a serious conflict and a challenging solution, the payoff suggests a lopped-off finale replaced with approximately five sentences, and the previous buildup becomes baggage.

Throughout his career, Miyazaki has created at least one movie at every age level up to adulthood (and is allegedly planning a sequel to Porco Rosso covering old age). Ponyo is perhaps at an even younger level than My Neighbor Totoro, with which it shares some of the same charm and effect. Sometimes it hits even harder. But as a whole, it doesn’t work quite as well. If the conflict was never meant to be the focus, it should have been stripped of the serious implications that end up resolved with no effort. Personally, I would have liked to see the additional story that could have come from them.

Final score: 8/10

 

Winner: While Bluth’s offering, which alters the source material just enough to create a running conflict, could teach Miyazaki’s something about cohesiveness, there is little question as to which is the better movie. Other than it’s (as is) superfluous conflict, Ponyo is small in scope as well, yet its simple joys far exceed the passable level reached by Thumbelina. It’s another easy one for Miyazaki (though the answer to both of the titular questions happens to be “Disney”).

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