Friday, July 26, 2013

Dual/Duel Review: Disney's Little Mermaid vs Ghibli's Ponyo

Dual/Duel reviews are an online smackdown between two books, movies, games, podcasts, etc. etc. that I think are interesting to compare, contrast, and comment on. For a list of other dual/duel reviews, go here.

The timelessness of fairy tales can be seen in how they are re-imagined and re-told by each generation. Often, purists seek out the original text and any deviation from that is considered, well, deviant. Such an attitude, while understandable, is a bit stagnant. Bringing new ideas or twists or perspectives to a story can provide a deeper appreciation. It's like seeing a statue in different lighting or from a different angle--nuances of meaning or interpretation can shift in unexpected ways.

One classic tale (though it is relatively young by fairy tale standards) is Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. After a long stretch of mediocre animated films, Disney was able to renew its artistic creativity and excellence with the 1989 release of their musical animated extravaganza, The Little Mermaid. The music is great. The animation is top notch. The characters are well-drawn and well-performed. The story is mostly faithful to Andersen's tale except for the typical "Disneyfied" ending. Has a Disney princess ever failed to get her man? At the time of the release, conservatives complained about how the movie endorsed children defying their parents, since Ariel was ultimately seen as right in seeking out the human world against her father's wishes. But King Triton is a more nuanced parent than someone like the step-mother in Cinderella, who apparently is okay to defy since she is baldly evil. The controversy was never quite convincing to me back then; even now, with a young daughter, I still can't agree with the criticism.

In 2008, Studio Ghibli, home of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, released Gake no ue no Ponyo which was released in America as Ponyo in 2009. The story is inspired by Andersen's story but set in the contemporary world. Five-year old Sosuke lives in a cliff-side home with his mom Lisa. One day he saves a goldfish with a humanish face, brings her home, and names her Ponyo. She likes him as he does her with the innocent and immediate friendship that five-year olds have. She's the daughter of a wizard and a sea-goddess and thus has magical powers. But her powers will fade if she becomes human like she wants to. When she's recaptured by her dad, she accidentally releases a potent brew he's working on. This causes a massive storm creating problems for the sea-dwellers and the land-dwellers too. A somewhat heavy-handed environmental theme is subsumed into the larger theme of living in harmony, having a balanced approach to life much in keeping with the Golden Rule. Ponyo's story is a great blending of real life, magic, and whimsy.

Even though both movies are based on the same story and are animated, it is not so easy to compare them. They both incorporate big, beautiful imagery that fires the imagination. Ponyo is a bit more fanciful. They both use music well. The Little Mermaid is richer here as a well-executed musical. The Little Mermaid is set in a quasi-medieval/Renaissance world (at least the human part of it) that is standard for Disney fairy tale flicks. Ponyo's use of a modern day setting is more bold, opening up new storytelling possibilities. Miyazaki takes full advantage of those possibilities.

Andersen was a story teller of a different type from the Brothers Grimm. They collected folk tales from oral traditions. Andersen crafted new tales that still have the mythic or timeless character of the tales handed down from generation to generation. Indeed, his tales now are handed down like the Grimms' tales. Andersen would probably favor Ponyo as something newer, fresher.

This is a tough call, but I have to give it to Ponyo for its greater originality. While The Little Mermaid is a classic, I might be a little burned out on it. Certainly both are great films. Both are worth owning and watching multiple times.



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