'Ponyo' aims at wider audience

Animation fans know Hayao Miyazaki as the living legend behind four decades of hand-drawn classics, including “My Neighbor Totoro” (a film originally released in the U.S. by low-budget label Troma) and Oscar winner “Spirited Away,” and yet the visionary Japanese director remains largely unknown to American auds.

His biggest Stateside hit, 2002’s “Spirited Away,” made just $10 million of its $275 million worldwide haul in the U.S. And his much-publicized follow-up, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” earned less than $5 million, compared with $230 million abroad, in 2005.

That’s a situation the director’s champions — including Disney/Pixar guru John Lasseter and power producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall — hope to correct with his latest film, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” when they release the English-language version in North America on Aug. 14.

Whereas Miyazaki’s past few pics have been seen as more adult-oriented, this family-friendly, G-rated entry evokes Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” fable and features dialogue dubbed by Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Noah Cyrus (kid sister of Disney superstar Miley). The film is expected to open on more than 800 screens.

According to Kennedy, who has known the director for eight years, “One of the frustrations we’ve shared is this conundrum of how to distribute his movies in North America in a way that people realize these pictures can appeal to a wide range of audiences and not just be relegated to arthouses.

“That’s why (Miyazaki and his associates at Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli) asked us to get involved and see if we could come up with ideas to expand on the release.”

Kennedy-Marshall set about bringing both A-list acting and writing talent to the English-language version of “Ponyo,” including Oscar-nominated “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Mathison. “We felt a responsibility to subtly reinterpret Miyazaki’s storytelling,” Kennedy recalls. “Miyazaki-san was quite intrigued with Melissa getting involved, and she found a subtle adjustment to the language so that you understand you’re watching a Japanese movie but, at the same time, you’re not getting confused by a literal translation.”

No cuts were made to Miyazaki’s animation, so the challenge in directing the voice actors was to make their English dialogue fit the existing picture. “It’s different than the way we usually work, where we animate after recording the voices,” explains Brad Lewis, who, like fellow Pixar directors Lasseter and Peter Sohn, helmed individual recording sessions for “Ponyo.” “With this, the actors watched the animation, and then we’d record several versions and see what worked. The only liberties we could take were a few words of pre-lapping dialogue.”

Lewis, who’s currently directing Pixar’s “Cars 2,” says the actors brought fresh perspectives to Miyazaki’s material. “Tina Fey, who plays Ponyo’s very modern mother, gave a really natural performance. We were recording her during afternoons, and at night she was playing Sarah Palin on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”

The producers have taken their time getting the U.S. release right since “Ponyo” premiered at the Venice Film Fest last fall. They booked “Ponyo” into a high-profile closing slot at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month and have even coordinated a rare personal appearance, in which the reclusive director will address his American fans at the San Diego Comic-Con this Friday.

Though Miyazaki merchandise represents a big market overseas, Disney has prepared little more than companion publications for the director’s past U.S. releases. Rather than diluting the brand, savvy tie-ins could actually cement his cultural standing and make Miyazaki as familiar a household name as Walt himself.

“If Disney gets the audience they’re hoping for with the increased theaters … I think they’ll definitely take advantage,” Kennedy says. “They’re going to have to see if, in fact, audiences do show up. I believe that once people see his movie, they’ll be hooked.”

Tip Sheet:
What: Miyazaki will participate in the Disney animation panel at Comic-Con
When: Friday, 12:45-2:15 p.m.
Where: Hall H, San Diego Convention Center

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