Lasseter Talks Miyazaki and Ponyo

by Anne Thompson
August 14, 2009 10:30 AM
4 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
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."

Thompson on Hollywood

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:


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And a brief snippet of Miyazaki himself:


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More, and the Ponyo trailer on the jump:

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. Here's the Ponyo trailer:

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4 Comments

  • Brian | August 17, 2009 3:13 AMReply

    Anne, since you're so friendly with Lasseter now, maybe you can ask him something. Sometime in 2006, TCM did a Studio Ghibli retrospective that included the only TV showing of an animated drama called ONLY YESTERDAY (1991), directed by Miyazaki's longtime partner, Isao Takahata (best known for GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES). It's a beautifully made two-hour feature about a Tokyo office worker getting in touch with her childhood self during a vacation in rural Japan, which she spends working on a safflower farm and finds love in the process. Easily one of the best animated dramas ever made, and, of course, completely unknown in this country. (It's never been released on home video in any format here.)

    So, when it came time for Ben Mankiewicz and John Lasseter to introduce the film to an audience that had never heard of it and needed to be told SOMETHING to make them want to see it, what did the two men talk about? How much Miyazaki liked TOY STORY. And that was it. Imagine your fury at the Variety critic who dismissed TOTORO. Well, that's how I felt about Lasseter that night.

  • Brian | August 17, 2009 3:02 AMReply

    To be fair to Disney, PONYO is being heavily marketed as a children's film and it wouldn't really pay to run a subtitled version. Imagine the wrath of parents taking their tykes on the basis of Disney Channel ads and finding out the film was in Japanese. Sure, the hardcore Miyazaki fans will show up at such theaters, but there aren't enough of them who would make it a point to actually go to a theater and pay admission. Many of those fans have already gotten the Japanese DVD (which has English subtitles) or, for all I know, have downloaded it from somewhere.

    I've heard a lot of positive word on this film from adult anime and Miyazaki fans, but I'm not sure how the non-fan parent will react to the more bizarre elements in the film. I'm a longtime Miyazaki fan and so is my daughter (I took her to her first Miyazaki film in 1990) and we both had problems with this film. (We saw the English dub at an advance screening and I've also seen the Japanese language version.)

  • cadavra | August 15, 2009 11:11 AMReply

    800 screens and not one of them playing it with the original Japanese track with subtitles; even the limited-release SPIRITED and HOWL received that courtesy. If anyone opened a new Almodovar or Zhang Yimou picture dubbed, there'd be riots in the streets, but because Miyazaki's films are "only" animated, he is apparently a second-class artist.

  • jl | August 15, 2009 5:07 AMReply

    looks AMAZING!

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