Friday, April 5, 2013

Frog Up Ponyo Sita: Complacency vs. Vision

An old post in which I talk about Disney (The Princess and the Frog), Pixar (Up), Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), and Nina Paley (Sits Sings the Blues). Disney isn't what it was in the old days, Pixar may be cresting the hill and looking a the down slope, but Miyazaki is still going strong and Nina Paley, who knows what she'll do next.
Walt Disney’s company created the first feature-length animated film and was, for a long-time, the most distinguished producer of such films. Pixar, now owned by Disney, is the most important producer of animated features made though 3D computer graphics, techniques Pixar pioneered. Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the most important Japanese filmmaker currently working in feature-length animation and Nina Paley is, well, her blog tags her as “America’s best-loved unknown cartoonist.” The purpose of this post is to examine and assess four films by each of these, respectively, The Princess and the Frog, Up, Ponyo on the Cliff, and Sita Sings the Blues. The first two are wonderful technical achievements, but only so-so as stories. The last two are just wonderful.

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was better than its trailers led me to believe it would be, but it is hardly the sign of a renaissance of traditional hand-drawn animation it was touted to be. A combination of action and musical numbers, it continues the approach to feature-length animation Disney has been exploring since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Some of the musical numbers are wonderful – I’m particularly fond the psychedelic voodoo imagery of “Friends on the Other Side” and the clouds of glass bottles at the end of Mama Odie’s “Dig a Little Deeper” – and Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator, was a clever delight. But the story, not so much.

The story conflates a standard-issue frogboy-meets-girl fairy tale with a plea for the virtue of hard thankless work, as opposed to, say, magical hokum, unless it’s good magical hokum to counteract bad magical hokum. Bad magical hokum is purveyed by long tall city-living males dressed in black while good magical hokum is purveyed by short swamp-dwelling earth mamas dressed in white. To add a bit of tension to this already tenuous plot we throw in some frog-loving back woods bumpkins. They’re foiled by a good-ole boy Cajun firefly, who turns out to be the real hero of the film. All of which is to say, there’s a lotta’ stuff been thrown into the story, but it’s not clear why it’s all needed.

What about race? This was to be the Walt Disney film that deals with race. And, yes, Tiana and Naveen are black, which is to say, they have brown skin. And that’s all that being black means in this film, set in early 20th Century New Orleans. One might well say: So what? And, if Disney hadn’t made such a big deal of race in touting the film, that’s what I’d say. I know race is more than complexion, but one needn’t do EVERYTHING in a film. Disney chose to make race an issue, however, so their failure to come to terms what race as a social fact, rather than as a cosmetic fact, suggests a fundamental lack of seriousness about the story they’re telling. In the end it’s just one more story about a princess and her party dress.

Pixar’s Up is often gorgeous and occasionally poignant, but it is confused about what film it wants to be. Yes, the ten-minute recap of Carl and Ellie’s life together is touching; but that’s well within the range of any competent film-maker. And, yes, I too shed a tear when Carl gave Russell his merit badge at the end of the film. But those moments certainly don’t lift the film out of the ordinary, and that’s what Up is, an ordinary film, albeit one made though extraordinary technical means. It rode its technical virtuosity to the Oscars, but that hardly compensates for a diffuse and confused story.

That opening recap is done in highly stylized, but realistic terms. And so it is with Carl's conflict with the construction workers and their all-but faceless boss. It's all highly stylized, but within the imaginable capabilities of an old man living in our world. It isn't until the house actually lifts off that we realize we're not in Dorothy's Kansas anymore, no we're not. Still, this isn't much more than a plausible exaggeration. But, at some point the exaggeration ceases being plausible. At some point a carefully constructed world gave way to a disconnected set of gags. And the gags weren't in support of any particular premise. They're just gags – the talking dogs, Alpha with the high squeaky voice, and so forth – and those gags and stunts and obliterate the serious underpinnings of this story: Carl’s loss of Ellie, Russell’s estrangement from his father.

And then there's Kevin, the strange and wonderful bird that turns out to be at the center of the whole story, including the Muntz back-story. Character design may have been a problem. She was too gorgeous and goofy to arouse much sympathy as a distressed mother (cf. Dumbo's mom). And her wounded leg was something between a painful impediment and another one of those pesky gags. The whole gender confusion gag, was, well, confusing. First we encounter Kevin as an oddly ominous comic character. And we get used to HIM in that role. Once that's settled in, then we learn SHE's a mom anxious about her babies. Whoops! Why's she anxious about her babies? Because Muntz, the crazed codger explorer and inventor, is after her. That's serious stuff that just got lost in all the gags. The upshot is that we don't know whether Kevin is being played for laughs, poignancy, or more action.

There's lots of stuff in Up, much of it gorgeously made and presented. But it just doesn't hang together as a story. There's too much material working at cross purposes: characters, their dreams and desires, their physical designs, plot elements, themes, long arcs, all jangled in there pulling in 73 different directions. It exhausts me just to think about it.

Both of these films feel like they were made by a committee. The committee started by drawing up a check list of characteristics the film needed to have. They then set out to check off each item on the list. But the list did not, alas, say anything about a coherent and compelling story.

Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff is a different kettle of fish. Very different. While it is recognizably Miyazaki in many ways large and small, it digs deeper into the fundamental texture of reality than any other of his films. Just what I mean by that, that is a bit tricky.

All of Miyazaki’s films worlds have fantastic or mythological elements, some more (e.g. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, Spirited Away), some less (e.g. Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service). And that’s certainly true with Howl’s Moving Castle, the film that preceded Ponyo. That’s set in a world where witches and wizards are summoned to war as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world. The titular castle is the animate and ambulating home of a wizard, Howl, and it is powered by a fire demon, Calcifer. This is a world in which the distinction between animate and inanimate life is all but gone and in which the very nature of space is pliable. The fact that the castle can open on four different locations at one and the same time suggests that it participates in some fourth dimension, “out there” beyond ordinary geophysical space.

Ponyo continues in this vein. The story is itself simple, so simple some critics have thought it merely a children’s tale: Young fish wants to become human. Boy befriends fish and names her Ponyo. Fish becomes human. Upsets the order of the universe. Parents concerned. Pose a test for the boy. Boy passes test. Ponyo is now permanently human. Order restored to universe.

Order restored to the universe? For children only? Not likely.

That first move is indicative: the main action – if this be action – is initiated outside the human sphere, by a fish. Visually, this fish, and her many sisters, is ambiguous. Her fins could be fins, or they could be a flowing gown. But then the ocean waves are sometimes waves, waves with eyes, and then sometimes enormous frolicking fish. Here we have it again, Miyazaki blurs the line between animate (fish) and inanimate (water). The opening sequence takes place underwater, where we see scads of jelly-fish, creatures barely distinguishable from the water in which they live; they return as a motif throughout the film. We also see crustaceans, mollusks, and cephalopods (squids and octopi), and later trilobites, sharks and fish from the Devonian, ancient animals all. I can’t remember a film so concerned with old life forms since, well, the Rite of Spring episode of Fantasia, and those old animals were set safely in the past, unlike these.

As for that simple story, yes the fate the whole world IS at stake here. Just how or why that simple desire on the part of a small fish should have such an effect, that is a mystery. And, I suspect, a mystery with no solution, nor is one needed. In this film the story is a device Miyazaki uses to show us the creatures of the world, parades of them – the sea creatures, but also, later in the film, a parade of townspeople in their boats, and an enormous “school” of ocean-going vessels. Ponyo is an ontological fable, not only about the continuity of life, but about the continuity between life and non-life. Though it has narrative form, it is really a ritual cosmology – another connection with Fantasia.

But also with Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, which I’ve already reviewed. Sita is a multiple retelling of the Ramayana, one of the seminal texts of Hinduism and a text which has no canonical version, as Amardeep Singh points out.* One retelling takes place through 1920s recordings of Annette Hanshaw, another through a more or less conventional narrative of Rama and Sita, yet another through commentary by three contemporary narrators, and a fourth through the story of Nina’s break-up with her husband. These various versions of the story are realized in different visual styles, including collages of Indian calendar art and Indonesian shadow puppets. The overall effect is thus one of a commentary on the act of story telling. Yet, as Singh points out, because this story has no canonical version, the commentary is continually collapsing into the story itself. All versions are both but versions of the story and the story itself in the only version that matters, the one being told now.

There is one incident in the film, however, that is a bit curious, Sita’s trial by fire (Agni-Pariksha). It first occurs roughly 39 minutes into the film, where it is set to “Mean to Me” sung by Hanshaw, preceded by commentary from the three shadow puppets. The incident recurs at roughly 52 minutes, right after the fictional Nina has received an email from her husband informing her that he wants a divorce. This repetition is quite unlike anything else in the film. It is set to contemporary music, written by Todd Michaelson, and danced by Reena Shah, who also voices Sita. This is the only time we see a real human form on screen, though we see it only in outline, as rotoscoped by Paley from Shah’s dancing. There is no narrative here, just pure ritual, if you will. This is the most powerful segment in the film, and it occurs roughly three fourths of the way through, a good place for a climax. Finally, the trial by fire is evoked at the very end of the film, where the entire story is quickly glossed in a final act of self-sacrifice in which, for all practical purposes, Sita becomes/rejoins the earth.

This repetition moves the film from narrative to ritual. The story is one that is told and retold in all times and place in many registers. It is a story that reveals the acts that  bind the universe together. Once again, metaphysics.

Paley, like Miyazaki, isn’t just telling us a story, or even a story about a story. She is laying out a cosmology. It is a cosmology set forth in different terms from Miyazaki’s, but, like his, it is cosmology grounded in love, the love of a fish for a boy (and his for her), a woman’s love for her husband, despite his inability to accept that love.

And, astonishingly enough, Paley is using the form that Walt Disney created, the feature-length animated musical narrative, but that his company has long since transformed into a machine for grinding out cinematic sausage, albeit often classy sausage. The difference is that Nina Paley, like Hayao Miyazaki, has an artistic vision, while the Walt Disney Animation Studios, alas, like Pixar, does not.

Art is not made by technique, not even technique backed by a big budget. Art requires passion and vision.

*Amardeep Singh, “Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.” South Asian Review, Vol. 30, 2009, 167- 180. (PDF)


  1. I think Disney is motivated by marketing, and its market research told them that they needed another princess in a prom dress movie set in a kind of racial period piece of the sort where Australians sound enough like Brits to American audiences so that they can enjoy the likes of Braveheart 'history'. Even more brilliant than that coup of faux race, knowing what we all know about our real willingness to deal with race is childish, Disney allowed children to do their publicity. They simply interviewed kids outside of the theatres and that was their marketing. Nothing more or less than color of skin. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. Race is the least of America's problems.

    Up is more about being clever than anything, and the clever thing to do is use just this particular level of animated abstraction to create funny and memorable characters. Funny and memorable to kids and anyone who remembers 'Saturday morning cartoons'. It doesn't matter what they do or where they go. No plot or side plot is too ridiculous. Just keep the little jokes rolling.

    Ponyo was touching as are all of Miyazaki's works, bordering as they do on archtypal fantasy. I'm actually not generally prepared to take films so seriously and so have seemed to drop my vocabulary in describing what remains so wonderful about Miyazaki. But I think the most extraordinary aspect of his films is that he possesses a sense of the heroic in youth, and he trusts them with that power. The children of Miyazaki's films exhibit a freedom and power we have completely forgotten. We protect our children from everything because we think they can't handle the adult truth. Which is to acknowledge our adult truth as poison.

  2. But I think the most extraordinary aspect of his films is that he possesses a sense of the heroic in youth, and he trusts them with that power.


  3. I personally thought that The Princess and the Frog was a mess. I went in expecting to enjoy it, but I ended up very disappointed. I liked Tiana and her friend Charlotte, but the rest of the characters seemed hollow and uninteresting. I didn't like any of the musical numbers, which were boring and forgettable at best. The story wasn't that much better. I could go on, but it would be a long diatribe.

    As for Up, I will only say that every Pixar film since The Incredibles have left me slightly disappointed.

  4. I think Disney has pretty much run out of ideas on the animated musical. They should drop the format.