This has been one amazing year for animated films. At least four of them are contenders for my list of the year's best films, and a few others are good enough to warrant a second viewing. But despite that, the majority of them are in 3D, and rated PG, neither of which appeals much to my 3-1/2 year old son who is beginning to ask to come to the movies with me. There's one exception, still in theaters, that stands apart from all the rest of the competition: Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo (163 screens). Ponyo is hand-drawn (rather than computer-animated), not in 3D, and so far is the only G-rated movie of the year. (I'm not counting two others: Hannah Montana: The Movie, or Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, about which the less said, the better.)
Yet Ponyo hasn't exactly been lighting its United States audience on fire. Or maybe it just feels like we have already forgotten about it, despite some good voice work by Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson and others. It doesn't seem to be on the cinematic radar anymore, even though it did well in its home of Japan. Perhaps audiences were turned off by the fact that Disney-sanctioned Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas were cast to perform the two lead children, or that they recorded a truly insufferable song for the closing credits. Or perhaps the movie is too simple and too gentle. When Miyazaki's gorgeous, dark Spirited Away opened here in 2002, the time seemed right, and enthusiasm for his work ran high; the movie was ushered in as a major event in the history of animation.
Was it all hype? Miyazaki's follow-up, Howl's Moving Castle -- released here in 2005 -- had a similar touch and tone, but did not get nearly the same kind of reception. Around the same time, John Lasseter and Disney scooped up the rights to Miyazaki's back catalog of films (except Princess Mononoke, which is still owned by Miramax) and began releasing them on deluxe, two-disc DVD sets, complete with newly dubbed English-language versions as well as the original Japanese versions. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) -- a much-loved classic around the world -- became a new household favorite in the United States, even if it's still something of a cult item. (Many parents I've spoken to have never heard of it.)
Totoro has a very gentle, G-rated nature as opposed to the frightening darkness of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo makes a move back toward that simplicity and innocence. Even Miyazaki's style on the new film seems to have gone back to a simpler format; the characters feel less complicated, more like minimal line sketches than richly detailed drawings. It could be this different look that has turned off viewers. Yet as I check the box office scores, it appears that Ponyo has outgrossed even Spirited Away, grand entrance and all. Maybe all those good folks who discovered Totoro at home have been quietly slipping out to daytime matinees and quietly keeping it afloat all summer. That's the kind of movie it is. It may take a while, but it will be a favorite in home entertainment systems long after all the 3D gimmicks have faded away into 2D memories.