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Ten Word or Less Review: Two touted animated films with lots of pros and cons.

Ponyo – The legendary works of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki have grown steadily in appreciation for several decades now.  Once a complete unknown in this country, Miyazaki is now largely acknowledged as one of the best animators in the history of cinema in this U.S. as well as his native Japan.  His meticulous and sometimes insane hand drawn animation style has few betters.  Though he has few vocal detractors on the whole, some do acknowledge that his stories can be either difficult to follow or overtly simplistic.  “Ponyo” continues his unwavering tradition of top tier animation but saddles it to a story for 5 year olds.  The animation is mind boggling and phantasmagoric in places.  Truly sweeping stuff that will dazzle even the hardest nosed fan of animation.  But “Ponyo” is strictly a movie for the 5 to 7 year old crowd.

Miyazaki loosely reworks Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” fable into contemporary tale.  There are parts of the story that would seem to suggest a terrifying or suspenseful story is playing out, but the movie is never stressful or dangerous for any of its character.  In one of the most sweeping sequences of the film Ponyo, while chasing after the boy she wants to be friends with, floods an entire coastal town, an act that would logically kill everyone.  The next morning the entire town citizenship is floating by on little boats, happy and as unworried as anyone can be about anything.  It’s this kind of tension free storytelling that makes “Ponyo” a bore.  Stripped of its amazing visuals it’s little more than a story about two little kids trying to be friends, one just happens to be a fish.  The consistently simplistic dialogue, often taking place as pedantic every day events unfold, should make it clear for most that the youngest of children are the target this time.  There’s nothing really wrong with any of this, but unless you intend to watch the movie with small children, or you’re just a Miyazaki worshiper, “Ponyo’s” simplicity probably won’t engage older viewers.

The Princess and the Frog – The much heralded return of Disney movies to hand drawn animation comes in the overstuffed form of “The Princess and the Frog.”  It’s a movie bursting at its seams with everything, and that’s of what trips it up.  In their attempt to hearken back to the style of movie which made Disney animation great again in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the film’s creators have shoved in every type of gimmick, character and plot device that made those pictures work.  There’s the princess who wants a better life, the prince who will steal her heart only after he’s antagonized her for most of the story, grandiose, Broadway ready musical numbers, cute animal sidekicks, a dead parent to serve as character motivation, an evil sorcerer on a power trip, a kiss at story’s end and so on.

All of this is dressed up in spiffy Cajun clothes and mild bayou accents but at its heart, “Frog” isn’t any different from all the pictures of Disney’s respected past.  Now under the guiding hand of Pixar, a studio which routinely shows the world that animated movies can be so much more than princess stories, why it was decided to regurgitate all of this stuff is debatable.  The thinking ‘one more for old times sake’ seems likely.  Or perhaps, “We never had a black princess, did we?”  All this curmudgeonly gripping aside “Frog” is not a bad film or an unentertaining one.  It’s lively and fast and energetic almost to a fault.  The goofy sidekicks are cute and the main characters are mostly a likable lot if a bit generic.  The animation style fits right in line with Disney heyday work from two decades ago.  If you admired those works then this will hold your attention.  But when it’s all said and done this feels like a creation more in line with “Mulan” than “Beauty and the Beast.”

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