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As part of the famous Disney Renaissance the 1989 release of The Little Mermaid took the world by storm and is still one of the most easily recognisable animation films to this day. It told the story of Ariel and her undersea adventures as she tried to become human in order to be with the man she has fallen in love with. Nineteen years later saw the release of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a somewhat similar story featuring a goldfish, who falls for a five-year-old and wants nothing more than to be human, in order to have fun and play with the boy. If these two films sound familiar it’s because they are both based on the Danish classic, The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen. November 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the Disney classic, so what better time to look at how the animation powerhouses of the East and West managed to, similarly yet very differently, adapt the book into the two forms we see today.
Similarly, the two films look at the theme of rebellion, as both protagonists fight for what they want against a system that tries to deny them. There are differences in why each protagonist rebels, however. Firstly, Ariel rebels against her father, because all she wants is to be human so that she can be with the man she loves (or lusts after, as many may believe). Ponyo, on the other hand, rebels against her father because of the urge to become more human. Sure, their desires would have similar outcomes, but it is the execution that leads to their differences. The Little Mermaid works on the classic princess, good-versus-evil story and comes off as a more pantomime-esque narrative. Rebellion takes a backseat to the classic romance element. Her father acts more as a foil to the romance rather than the rebellion and we are left with a run-of-the-mill Disney plot.
In comparison in Ponyo, we have a much younger protagonist. Here, the opposite happens: rebellion, the childish, fun loving and somewhat mischevious nature of the little girl comes to the fore, with romance taking a backseat. Ponyo’s father, differently motivated than that of Ariel’s, notices that the moon’s orbit is causing disruption to satellites and concludes that without the presence of Ponyo, the global balance is off, setting out to be the film’s antagonist (more of a foil to the protagonist’s goal than an enemy). This difference in characterisation helps push forward the rebellion theme towards adventure, something that has become a mainstay in the Japanese fantasy anime genre.
We see similarities in the protagonist designs but only because of the source material that they are based on. We, in fact, see a shared inspiration rather than true similarity. The cultures of the two films once again manage to weave their way into style. This is down to the obvious Disney versus anime aesthetic as well as the liveliness and vibrance of their respective underwater worlds. Ghibli is known for its fantastical, round faces, big eyes and wild, extravagant hairstyles that isn’t afraid to shy away from Japanese folklore as an inspiration. Disney sticks with what they know, having stronger jaws on their characters, more human-like figures and less crazy hair. Each style can be seen by looking at the way water is portrayed. The water simulation in each manages to compliment the overall style of the animation as well as the various fish seen throughout. The colours, the flow of the water across the screen and the movement of the characters through it, matches the aesthetic of the culture, looking almost like the old paintings of each region.
Rather than an adaptation like Disney, Ghibli took the source material and used it as a starting point to tell a very different story. This proves very successful in establishing its own identity. To look at the major differences that these two approaches to the source present, we must first look at the fantasy aspect that is adapted. Magic plays out in very different ways in the two films, leading to a study of our characters’ cultural representations. In the West we are far more used to the medieval aspects of history (more on this later), whereas Ghibli actually shies away from its own medieval history to better tell its own story. Through the use of song and more dramatic action sequences, we see two styles of magic in the two films, one that has become synonymous with the Ghibli style such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro and one that calls us back to the times of Fantasia and Cinderella. In this regard, both cultures have their representation, allowing for accurate adaption of each style’s portrayal of what magic is. You look at either of these films, and immediately, you know the style. That is how they invoke the animated history of their respective countries.
Ariel and Ponyo both have strengths and weaknesses in their personalities. Ariel’s sole focus is her prince, whereas Ponyo focuses on fun, being a five-year-old. This lets us see two very different aspects of the human psyche, that of a young woman and child. Neither character develops much throughout the story however, something that is notable for Disney Princesses (only recently changing with The Princess and the Frog), something that however, is not usually the norm in Ghibli narrative. Neither character really learns a lesson, which is quite unusual for children’s animation. Even in the supporting cast, it is tough to find a true moral outside of the straight fantasy. Both protagonists (spoilers!) achieve their goals, but neither present a fulfilling development as to why they deserve the sweet end that we have come to expect in an animated narrative. We see development more so by looking at the characters of the antagonist, even if Ponyo doesn’t really have one. The closest we get is that of the Liam Neeson-voiced father, and even his motivations are sound, creating emotional representation. This stands in comparison unlike that of Ariel’s foil, Ursula, who in herself is nothing more than a one-dimensional pantomime villain.
Music is important with both movies having excellent soundtracks. Is one better or worse than the other? It isn’t possible to say, because, each is strong and stands out for different reasons. Both create a world that is believable despite stretching the fantastical. Both take full advantage of the possibilities laid out in front of them and both manage to tell a story filled with interesting, well designed characters that will remain recognisable for another thirty years. Although, somewhat cut from the same cloth, Ponyo and The Little Mermaid are very different films, each giving us some of the best of what the East and West, respectively, can offer us. Both are great films. Both are part of animation history and both are proof of what the animation craft can attain.