By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 14, 2009 at 10:30AM
I've been spending a lot of time with John Lasseter lately. In May, the Disney/Pixar animation chief brought Up to open the Cannes Film Fest, where animator Pete Docter got the full auteur treatment. Then Lasseter brought Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who he says had a huge influence on Up, to do a U.S. tour to support his latest, Ponyo, from closing night June 28 of the Los Angeles Film Festival and accepting an award at Berkeley to July's Comic-Con and a full-scale Academy tribute.
As Lasseter has been called America's new Walt Disney, so is Miyazaki known as the Disney of Japan.
The two men are mutual fans and friends, going back to Miyazaki's visit in the 80s to the U.S. around the time of My Neighbor Totoro. When that film first showed here, I took young Nora, and like Lasseter's kids, she grew up on the magic anime of Miyazaki, from Kiki's Delivery Service to Princess Mononoke. Only once in my life have I ever called a critic and yelled at him for a wrong-headed review. I still get steamed thinking about the Variety critic who didn't think Miyazaki's Totoro was good animation.
Miyazaki and Lasseter share something rare: they are filmmakers in charge of animation giants in their respective countries, Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation/Pixar. Where Lasseter has developed a strong collaborative ethic at Pixar, he reveres Miyazki, I think, for dreaming up his stories and drawing much of the storyboards and characters himself. At Comic-Con, Miyazaki told the crowd the secret behind his artistry. "My process is thinking, thinking and thinking, thinking about my stories for a long time," he said with a smile. "If you have a better way, let me know."
When Lasseter interviewed Miyazaki in front of 6500 fans in Hall H, the Disney/Pixar chief praised him for running a "filmmaker-led studio dedicated to making great movies. That's what it's all about." Backstage, Lasseter said that you could watch the films in Japanese with no subtitles and still figure out what was going on. The language only adds subtlety and depth. "I love the positive messages in all the films," he said. "Miyazaki is inspirational. He celebrates quiet moments."
The evening at the Academy was Lasseter's tribute to Miyazaki, complete with his commentary on his favorite Miyazaki clips, including a rousing helicopter rescue operation in Castle in the Sky, a bar scene with pig-faced aviator Porco Rosso, the scary magic of Spirited Away, and the dreamlike catbus scene from Totoro, as the giant furry creature waits with two little girls in the dark rain at a bus stop. Miyazaki, who studied politics and worked his way up as an animator while always wanting to write manga comics, admits that he never wanted to make Totoro's origins or powers clear. He was thinking about the images in that film for ten years, he said. He doesn't like spending time drawing villains, so he doesn't do it much.
His latest Ponyo is also sublime; it whisks you 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.
While Lasseter's Disney animation division and producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have supervised the English-language dub of Miyazaki's Ponyo--already a hit overseas--the film retains its magic and Japanese identity. Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Betty White are among the voice talent. Lasseter is banking that the movie will 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). Lasseter is putting all the clout of the Disney studio behind giving this film a proper wide release. The poor performance of the other Miyazaki films in the U.S. comes down to the number of theaters they were in, he says. "Now we're in 800 theaters."
Here's backstage interview footage from Comic-Con of Lasseter talking about making the English-language version of Ponyo:
And a brief snippet of Miyazaki himself:
More, and the Ponyo trailer on the jump: