Monday, August 17, 2009

Ponyo, why don't people care?

I saw Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea yesterday, by Japanese film master, Hayao Miyazaki, and it was wonderful. For movies that I'm really excited for (such as any new movie by Miyazaki or Tarantino) I try not to read any reviews because I'm going to go see them regardless (so I mostly try to avoid reviews because I want to know as little about the movie as possible before seeing it). Some time before Ponyo's U.S. release I remember "accidently" reading something somewhere that Ponyo wasn't being as well received as Miyazaki's previous movies, so part of me was bracing for a lesser production. Well within five minutes I was swept away by Ponyo and I'd rank it amongst his top movies such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, Whisper of the Heart (Miyazaki wrote the screenplay), Porco Rosso, and Kiki's Delivery Service. When I got home I checked Rotten Tomatoes and Ponyo is reviewed at 93% favorable (80 fresh reviews versus only 6 rotten reviews) so I was happy to see that the love for this movie exists.

Ponyo was inspired by The Little Mermaid (not the Disney version) and almost all of the animation is hand drawn (many sequences by Miyazaki himself). One could argue that the story is simple, but it's not simple in a stupid way and the animation, characters, and music of Ponyo make this a very happy joyous experience that I think people who see it will want to share with others. Go here for a great clip from Ponyo (one of my favorite scenes that doesn't really spoil anything): and click on small, medium, or large for viewing depending on your computer's speed. Wasn't that great? Why would someone not want to see Ponyo after watching that clip?

The title of my entry here "Ponyo, why don't people care?" doesn't mean that Ponyo isn't doing well in the semi-wide release it's gotten (and its per screen average probably would put Ponyo higher in the top ten for this week), but rather is my lament about why it's not doing better, why isn't the anticipation of seeing Ponyo at the fever pitch that the anticipation was for Transformers, GI Joe, or District 9 (the latter of which I still plan to see and have heard mostly good things about)? Before finishing this entry I was going to go on a rant that this is because Ponyo, like all of Miyazaki's movies, don't have villainish characters, there's not a constant threat of things blowing up, and Miyazaki's movies aren't guycentric.

Well in the middle of writing this, my friend, Miami Rick calls up and I start talking to him about this. Rick doesn't think my hypothesis is entirely correct and that rather the reason that Ponyo isn't doing better than it is or that the awareness isn't as great as it could be is because of poor marketing by Disney. He reminded me that Disney only about a week ago started airing commercials for Ponyo, while for movies they've produced like The Princess and the Frog, they've got trailers running in theaters months before it's supposed to be released. So if it wasn't for the growing fan base that Miyazaki does have here in the U.S. and their anticipation and online promoting for Ponyo, it would be not even doing as well as it is. Rick argues that Disney doesn't care that much about marketing Ponyo or Miyazaki's films. I then offered back that Disney does a great job of providing top notch voice actor talent for the Miyazaki movies (Ponyo has the voices of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Betty White, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, and Cloris Leachman - Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas are also great as Ponyo and Sosuke) and that John Lasseter, the king of Pixar, has nothing but the highest regards for Miyazaki (as do most of the people who end up working on his movies). Rick's position is that Disney marketing and Disney production of Miyazaki's films are two different things, which I understand and we both agreed that big companies such as Disney (and this is true of Warner Brothers, Sony, DC, and Marvel) largely just promote projects of the lowest common denominator such as The Princess and the Frog or "sure fire successes" like Transformers or Batman and Robin (by Morrison and Quitely) because the marketing people don't want to take the risks promoting something that when it doesn't do big numbers could risk their continued employment and or promoting higher caliber productions like Ponyo will make it harder for them to sell simpler fare like The Princess and the Frog (which are easier to make and promote in sound / clip bites).

I still think part of why Ponyo or Miyazaki movies don't do better in the U.S. is because a big portion of people who would go to Transformers, GI Joe, Spider-Man, and District 9, cringe at the idea of going to see a movie like Ponyo because it's just a children's movie (it's not) or Julie and Julia (which I haven't seen yet) because it's a "chick flick" and there's no possible way that those movies could speak or appeal to them. I see the same thing here in my comic shop, with people who only buy superhero titles and while I like many superhero titles myself, I lament that often comic books like Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow?, Color of Earth, Stuck Rubber Baby, and American Widow, just get completely overlooked. Now it is certainly true that a person can't buy everything and that maybe a person just wants a superhero story when they buy a comic, but I really do believe if more people actually read a graphic novel such as The Impostor's Daughter or Alan's War, they'd see that you don't have to limit yourself to just action / adventure / slugfests for one's entertainment. I say this, not to be an elitist as I'm sure some think of me as I seem to talk more about comics / art forms that aren't of a superhero / action slant, because really I'm not the smartest bear on the block by a longshot, I just want more of these other works of entertainment like Ponyo and Alice In Sunderland, to find a bigger audience that I know would love them as I do.

For those of you who've read this all the way to the end (thank you for that, by the way!) that don't plan to see Ponyo, what is it about this movie (and similar movies) that makes you not consider it as an entertainment choice? Is my argument about why Ponyo isn't bigger wrong? What do you think are the reasons Ponyo doesn't resonate with people like Transformers or District 9 do?


Michael said...

Disney promotes it in the same sort of way they promote their DVD sets of old cartoon shorts or their retro theme park merchandise. It's for their fans.

Disney knows that animation fans love Miyazaki films, and after the very silent treatment they gave Princess Mononoke they've given each successive one a bit more notoriety. Still, it's an art house experience for animation fans, not a huge mainstream blockbuster.

Two reasons for that, both of which are political. One, the company doesn't want the films to out-hype their own productions (Disney wound up being little more than a channel through which Pixar released movies for years, which was resolved only with great cost), and secondly if Disney does promote the heck out of Ghibli films then the license to import future Ghibli films goes up massively.

Anyway, that's my thought. Love the store, though you're on the diametrically opposite side of town from where I am so I don't get in very often.

Ralph Mathieu said...

Michael, your thoughts about the political reasoning for the lack of marketing by Disney are in line with what my friend Rick and I were conferring about.

Thanks for the comment on my store (time fo you to move so you're closer - grin)!

Pj Perez said...

You know, I went to see "(500) Days of Summer" on Saturday (which, if you haven't yet, you MUST see) with my girlfriend. We ran into one of her female friends in the theatre (which, on a Saturday night, was only about half full maybe), who said her boyfriend refused to see "(500) Days of Summer" and would rather go see G.I. Joe.

While I'm sure Disney's marketing machine hasn't thrown its full weight behind Ponyo (I'm not sure as I don't watch TV, read the paper or listen to commercial radio, though I did hear a great review on NPR), I do know this: There is a giant, lunkhead audience for explosiontrash such as G.I. Joe and Transformers, meanwhile, subtle, quieter films -- especially something animated in old-school 2-D -- are always going to struggle to grab a larger audience share due to prejudgments, presumptions and people's decreasing attention spans.

Nick Jones said...

I had absolutely no idea that Ponyo was being released in the US until some friends and I decided to go see a flick this weekend and I happened to see it in the listings. I'd say that qualifies as Disney not doing all it could to promote Miyazaki's work.

We did go and see Ponyo, and everybody enjoyed it. Despite having a somewhat scattered plot, there was universal agreement that it was heartwarming and superbly animated.

Red She Said said...

The first I've heard of Ponyo is from you today. I let Arlen know about your offer (ha ha!) and he said he knew about it and was also thinking that Stella would like it. Looks like we'll end up seeing it soon. ;)

Ralph Mathieu said...

PJ, exactly.

Sierra, I hope Arlen had a great birthday - give him a belated Happy Birthday from me!

Andrew said...

The short answer for Ponyo's slight showing at the box office this weekend is that it's *only* showing on 900 screens, as opposed to the 3,000-plus that the bigger-budget Hollywood films got.

Ponyo did a great job on a per-screen average, but for some reason Disney didn't push for the full-blown release that its other movies get.

Andrea Walter said...

Just came back from watching Ponyo with my bf. Fantastic! Thats all I have to say :)

Camila said...

Oops, I made that same mistake. I want to see District 9 and I did not think about Ponyo. I did not know Ponyo was out already. I will most likely watch Ponyo instead of District 9.

(RALPH! You did not mention Princess Mononoke! That is mine and Esmeralda's favorite movie. I am going to send the Forest Spirit after you.)

CC said...

Thanks for this post (found you when I Googled ponyo marketing). The marketing of this movie has been almost entirely absent, as if Disney would prefer to put absolutely no costs forward (possibly to Michael's point, although there could be contractual issues). Even the naming of the movie showing up in newspapers or online theater times is bizarre: Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo). Now, I just have to go get more ham for our youngest son, who has been demanding ham since seeing Ponyo!

Red She Said said...

So at your insistence, Arlen took Stella and I to see Ponyo today. While the film was cute and the animation was good, we all left the movie kind of scratching our heads as to what that in the hell just happened. I feel like the only one on this blog that just sort of found the movie weird, ha ha.

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