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Family Films: Disney's Ponyo Works, Indie Hachiko Remake Doesn't

by Anne Thompson
June 18, 2009 3:15 AM
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One's Japanese, the other isn't. And there's the rub.

While John Lasseter's Disney animation division and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have supervised the English-language dub of Hayao Miyazaki's latest anime film, Ponyo--already a hit overseas--the film is still magical and yes, very Japanese. (It closes the LAFF June 28; Miyazaki will appear at Comic-Con in July before the film opens in North America on August 14.) Lasseter is banking that with proper handling from Disney, the movie could break out to family audiences in a way none of Miyazaki's imports ever have, even with one Oscar nomination (Howl's Moving Castle) and one win (Spirited Away). Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Betty White are among the stars providing voice talent on Ponyo.

Fast Company lists Miyazaki as one of the top ten most creative people in film and TV. Wired lists the best anime coming out this summer.

I've been a huge Miyazaki fan, from My Neighbor Totoro through Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and beyond. Ponyo is also sublime. Like all great movies it whisks you effortlessly into another world. And it's old-fashioned, hand-drawn 2-D (not an ounce of CG in it), stylized animation. Miyazaki has always been able to capture the forces of nature and the great outdoors, in this case, the ocean that menaces the Japanese coast in the form of a tsunami. The movie lacks violence or anything urban: nature provides the story's threat and drama. Don't miss this one.

The Seattle Film Fest debuted another movie from a Japanese source. Hachi: A Dog's Story is a remake of Hachiko, based on a famous true story from the 20s. Loyal Akita Hachiko met his beloved master every day at the train station, and after the gentleman died of a stroke and never returned, escaped each of his new homes to wait for his master, faithfully every day, through heat, rain and snow, until he died ten years later (sob).

Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) took on the American remake with Richard Gere in the role of the professor who bonds with his dog. (The two men are friends and neighbors and worked together on Hoax.) But the movie twists itself into a pretzel explaining how a Japanese dog named Hachiko came to America, met the professor, got into the habit of waiting for him at the train every day--and kept waiting. There's a wife (Joan Allen) and a very slim family narrative. The movie doesn't work. Yet the bones of the story are still so powerful (which is why Gere and Hallstrom wanted to do it), that the Seattle audience and I were all in tears.

The movie's financeer, international sales co.Inferno Distribution, has a pact with Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group for North American and Australian ancillary rights to its movies. Inferno is negotiating with service distrib Consolidated Pictures Group (led by Bottle Shock filmmaker Randall Miller, who’s releasing I Love You Phillip Morris), which is looking to raise some P & A for a fall release.

But the movie really belongs at Disney, where the family label would mean something. Gere's agent Ed Limato showed the movie to Disney's Dick Cook, but the studio passed. Inferno's Bill Johnson changed the title from Hachiko to Hachi because he was afraid it would put off American audiences. "Hachi is more reminiscent of Benji," he said.

Check out the original Hachiko. Like Ponyo, it's the authentic real deal.

[Photo: The real Hachiko]

Originally posted on Variety.com

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