Since the first time I caught Studio Ghibli's 2001 anime Spirited Away, I've always had a special place in my heart for the animation studio dubbed the "Disney of the East". In preparation for my visit in the next few weeks to the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo, I thought I'd take a look at a few of the titles I've yet not seen, including the latest title to receive a western release - Ponyo, otherwise known by its literal translation, Ponyo on the Cliff.
Ponyo is described in the story as a 'goldfish', but resembles something more akin to a humanised child-fish. A chance encounter with a young boy named Sosuke, creates a desire for her to become a human, which is strongly forbidden by her steadfast father Fujimoto. But when Ponyo escapes her father's watch to be reunited with Sosuke once more, it will take more than encouragement to keep Ponyo below water.
It would be easy to infer the parallels between Ponyo and Hans Christian Andersons' The Little Mermaid and the Disney movie of the same name, but in reality there really isn't much more in the way of similarities. Whilst I enjoyed Ponyo for the most part, I struggled with the concept of grounding the film in reality, but implementing many unreal elements that the characters (especially the adult caretakers) accept in their stride. I don't mind fantasy or the suspension of disbelief, but I found other Ghibli entries such as Spirited Away handled the real and the unreal with much more care. Just like the human characters in Toy Story are unaware of the toys anthropomorphism, I prefer films to withhold certain knowledge from breaking the illusion and setup.
Despite this, Ponyo is another quality animated film from the studio, filled with some rich and beautifully rendered designs and colourful illustrations which really pop from the screen.
Ponyo is presented in a full screen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (its original aspect ratio), encoded with AVC MPEG-4 compression.
The sumptuous visuals are really given the chance to shine on Blu-ray, so much so that it reveals some of the animation shortcuts. The image is sharp and crisp at all times. The expanded HD colour gamut really allows the full spectrum of colour to come alive.
Suffice to say, this gets top marks from me, up there with some of the best transfers yet committed to Blu-ray disc.
The Disney produced English audio track is encoded in uncompressed PCM at 24 bits, and the original Japanese language track is encoded with DTS HD Master Audio at 24 bits. I listened to the entirety of the film with the English dub and sampled the original Japanese language track.
Of note is the American release of the disc, for Disney Home Entertainment has only given the original Japanese dub of the film a lossy Dolby Digital audio track, unlike here. Kudos to Madman for going above and beyond.
I'm happy to say that the audio tracks here are almost as impressive as the video transfer. Of note is some of the most impressive audio recording I've yet heard for an animated film. The front sound stage has some clear separation, but it's the surrounds that impress the most - with some extremely immersive split surround effects. The waves of the ocean travel from left to right and back again, creating a very realistic soundscape.
Overall, a pretty spectacular audio sound mix, regardless of the language of choice.
Madman Entertainment have created a good Blu-ray disc, using the best elements from the worldwide DVD and Blu-ray releases of Ponyo.
First up is the feature length Storyboard Experience which uses the picture-in-picture function to include a small window of the films storyboards in sync with the finished film.
The next few featurettes produced for the English dub give a bit of background to the film and an explanation of Studio Ghibli in an international sense. Meet Ponyo is a short interview with regular Spielberg collaborators Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy who acted as producers for the English dub. Of note is the work of reclusive E.T. writer Mellisa Mathison who acted as a consultant for the dub.
The aptly named A conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lassetter is just that - bringing together the famed director with Pixar's equally famous studio head. Behind the Microphone: The Voices of Ponyo looks at the faces behind the voices of the English dub, Creating Ponyo takes a look at the genesis of the Miyazaki process, Ponyo and Fujimoto discusses the creation of two of the leading characters.
The Nursery discusses some of the changes made to the film during production (shades of the Pixar process here), Scoring Miyazaki looks behind the scenes of the amazing orchestral score by Miyazaki regular Joe Hisaishi, The Locations of Ponyo looks at a few of the real world locations that inspired Miyazaki.
Dubbing Session and Interview with the Japanese cast is a English subtitled fly on the wall documentary look at the all important vocal sessions, featuring coaching by Miyazaki. Animated films are generally recalcitrant to show this level of behind the scenes, but no such fear here.
The Five Geniuses who created Ponyo is a 50 minute, made for Japan documentary (but subtitled in English) which focuses on the five biggest talents at Studio Ghibli, and gives an over-arching view of the production.
Two Interviews are up next; the first with Director Hayao Miyazaki and the next with Toshio Suzuki Interview. Subtitled in English, both are relatively in-depth and feature a scope far in excess of just their films.
The Theme Song Music Video is nothing like we have in western countries, I can assure you. I really have no idea what the theme is here, but it is definitely the main theme to Ponyo.
Finally, we have an assortment of Japanese Trailers and TV spots, but disappointingly none from the western release.