There are probably about seven things in existence that could make two grown men giggle at the same time, and six of them involve crass humor or drugs.
The seventh is Ponyo, (Ponyo of the Top of the Cliff), the latest effort from that crazy master of animation, Hiyao Miyazaki.
Right from the start of the film, it becomes clear that Miyazaki is, like most animators, interested in how he can play up the unique strengths of his medium. However, whereas a lot of narrative animators view the flexibility of their drawings and creations as tools for wondrous storytelling (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that), Miyazaki seems just as, if not more, interested in the tools themselves. For instance, the film begins with a wordless scene of undersea life that plays out over lush orchestration for about five minutes. There is no story here, there is no narrative thrust: it is an establishing shot/sequence that establishes very little but also establishes everything. It is excessive, grand, and to a certain way of thinking, superfluous. Nonetheless, I sat there, completely entranced by what I was experiencing. Teleology was sacrificed to achieve a larger truth, an inner truth, what Werner Herzog has called “an ecstatic truth”: truth that cannot be proven with logic, truth beyond the edges of analytical thinking.
I would argue (as have many others, most notably Kristin Thompson) that in most standard Hollywood films (animated or otherwise), this excess serves to both embellish the narrative necessities of the story and to release unconscious tension. This structure is notable especially in musicals; think of the song and dance numbers in Aladdin or The Lion King. In films like those, the musical numbers function as arias in opera do; the emotional energy built up by the plot (of say, Aladdin and Jasmine falling in love), manifests in a three-minute break from the story while the couple sings “A Whole New World”.
The structure is a little more difficult to discern in films that are not musicals, where excess often sort of filters in through the back door of the plot. In Monsters, Inc., there is a set-piece involving the two main characters riding through a clusterfudge of closet door/portals that stretch into infinity and move at incredible speeds. The animators are clearly showing the power of their tools in a scene like this, but they harness their skill to the plot of the film.
Miyazaki moves to the other side of the equation. His imaginative excess motivates the plot of his films. Ponyo is about a boy who falls in “love” (strictly platonic, they’re like seven, calm down) with a magical fish-demi-god-girl. The plot is unrealistic and fantastic, sure, but that is not the issue. Miyazaki uses his story almost like a frame upon which to stretch and pin down emotional states that he is examining through his animation. One gets the sense watching his films that if he didn’t have a plot to hold down his paint, it would fly out of the screen into a puddle of nonsensical color, almost as if everyone were just really high all the time.
In previous Miyazaki films, there has been a sense of dread or sinister threat lying in wait–Princess Mononoke is meditative and transcendent, but also cynical; Spirited Away threatens to end badly for all involved. In those films, Miyazaki ponders the state of the natural order at a slow, almost prayerful pace. Ponyo is frantic, exuberant, cute, disarming. The colors on display are saturated, the motion fast. Ponyo runs along the top of a tsunami, her feet moving like pistons, a huge smile on her face, the ecstasy of pure play onscreen. The score, by Joe Hisaishi, is lush and fast-paced, resonant, vivacious. The cast (which is a real humdinger, at least in the English version, especially Tina Fey, who’s right on) works with happiness in their voices. Every element of the film is fine tuned, all the dials turned to “happy”. And yet none of this becomes cloying or overbearing (as it can in a lot of animated films), which I suspect happens when creators focus on narrativizing and verbalizing what is, at root, an irrational thing; in his films, Miyazaki lets the viewer’s eyes and ears do the thinking for a change.
The upshot of this is that the experience of watching a Miyazaki film, for me at least, moves towards an irrational experience more akin to listening to music than seeing a play or reading a book. The plot ticks along, marking time, making sense in a children’s book kind of way (Sea Wizards? Magical elixirs?). And joy is the main emotion of this film, childlike, unabashed joy. And such is his skill as an animator (he and his team still hand-draw everything, by the way, and the backgrounds – MY GOD, the backgrounds!), that my friend and I smiled without stopping for two hours. I didn’t care that the plot was utterly simple, because it was truthful in a way that you feel in your gut, rather than your brain. When that type of gut emotion is placed in the service of innocence and communion rather than division and anger, the truth hurts so good.