Audiences in North American hadn't seen a theatrical release of a Ghibli film since 2005's Howl's Moving Castle, and even then, the box office take for that film in America was considerably lower than that of Spirited Away and many miles beyond its gross in Japan. Despite this, though, in August of 2009, (roughly around ten years after the first Disney-dubbed Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke, hit the screens), Miyazaki's newest tale about a goldfish aspiring to become human had a wide-scale release in North America. With rave reviews and a gross of $15 million, it holds the rank of being the highest grossing Ghibli movie in America. Of course, that doesn't amount to much since the film already made a massive amount of money in its native country, but either way, it was a solid dent for both Disney and the house of Totoro.
While longtime Miyazaki fanboy John Lasseter resumes his role for supervising the dub, Ponyo has a different team at its helm. This includes scriptwriter Melissa Mathison (E.T.), and executive producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, and a huge roster of all-star names... including the offspring of the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana. The selection of the latter was a sour sticking point for purists, who naturally were prepared to write off the whole dub. As such, Ponyo has fallen victim to the usual love/hate reaction that Disney's Ghibli dubs typically receive--high acclaim from most critics and viewers, but harsh detraction from naysayers. (In fact, this writer recalls running into a little girl who hated the Ponyo dub simply because she couldn't stand Cyrus.) Yet as with any of the Ghibli dubs, the key to enjoying Ponyo is not with bias against any of the performers, nor as a comparison tool to the Japanese version--but simply on its own merits.
And the good news is that Ponyo acquits itself very well. Mathison's script is fluent and natural for the most part, avoiding the occasional stilted sentence now and then (part of that problem is more due to the animation than the acting). Surprisingly, it's even nearly identical to the subtitled script of the Japanese version, with the exception of several lines (or at least that's the "official" subtitles on the R1 DVD release; I'm not sure how they compare to the R2 DVD). Of course, what really matters is how good the vocal talents are in order to breathe life into the dialogue to make it sound as fresh and fluent as possible.
SOSUKE (Frankie Jonas): Harsh detractors of Disney's dubs have been overly critical about the casting choices for the lead characters (e.g. the leads in Laputa, Michael Keaton as Porco Rosso, and the sisters in Totoro), and many of them were filling their ammunition for this casting choice, the youngest member of Disney's popular Jonas Brothers band. Having had no such problems with the aforementioned examples (and not the least bit familiar with that group), I wasn't about to put that much burden on him, and I am happily surprised to announce that he surpassed my expectations. Frankie does a GREAT job in this role, sounding very natural and comfortable throughout. His scenes with Lisa and the title character are credited by the exuberance he brings to the role. Only one crying scene in the first half after he loses Ponyo comes across as less convincing, but not enough to bring down the overall quality of his performance. I tip my hat to this guy--he really is quite good.
PONYO (Noah Cyrus): This is a trickier performance to evaluate. Voiced by the little sister of Hannah Montana 's Miley Cyrus (another point of contention for detractors), Ponyo surprisingly doesn't talk until about midway through the first quarter. And when she does talk, you should prepare to cover your ears: SHE YELLS MANY OF HER LINES LIKE THIS. On one hand, it is appropriate for the character, as she is, after all, an extremely hyperactive girl totally thrilled to be part of humanity. On the other, though, there are many moments when she goes overboard... to the point where she becomes the most grating element of the entire dub. Fortunately, she tones it down in the latter half, and never fails to deliver childish exuberance. Whether that's a compliment to the character or a detriment is up to the viewer.
LISA (Tina Fey): Sosuke's mother, Lisa, is my favorite voice in the whole dub. It's funny that I always find one particular actor that ends up "stealing the show" in any Disney Ghibli English track, and Fey takes the spot. She imbues her character with just the right amount of spirit and personality and sounds very much like the sort of mother anybody would want to have. Her exasperated scenes and concern for Sosuke are handled in a way that feels very natural to both the character and her overall performance. Particularly memorable is the scene where she expresses frustration with her husband for not returning to his family (and her subsequent "request" to tell Sosuke to flash the signal message "B-U-G-O-F-F"). The manner in which she delivers this scene is hilarious and priceless. All in all, an excellent job all around.
KOICHI (Matt Damon): Lisa's husband, the seafaring Koichi, has a surprisingly small part. Since his screentime is limited, it's more difficult to evaluate his performance as a whole. That said, Damon does do a fine job with what he has to do, which is mostly either excitement over seeing Sosuke flash a signal to his ship, stumbling his way through thunderstorms, or even calling out at the end.
FUJIMOTO (Liam Neeson): Ponyo's father is some sort of magician whose primary concern is to bring balance to the ocean (mainly by creating jellyfish from his magic elixirs) and becomes rather nerotic when his youngest daughter gets into trouble... to the point where he has to try to bring her back. It should come across as no surprise that Mr. Neeson nails this role, having proved himself capable of doing dramatic voiceovers for characters like Aslan in the Narnia movies. Contrary to the King of Beasts, however, Neeson gets to show emotions of exasperation and frustration. He never holds back in those moments (the scene where he tries to stop Ponyo from turning into a human is especially funny), and is overall a very nice presence in the cast.
GRAN MAMARE (Cate Blanchett): In many ways, this is a very effortless performance... but I don't mean that as a criticism at all. Blanchett's portrayal of this sea goddess isn't that much different from Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings. Employ the character with that same serene tone of voice and add a vocal reverb, and there you go! It may come across as somewhat distracting, but all in all it works in her character's favor.
YOSHIE (Betty White): Miss White plays one of three elderly women who live at the Senior Citizens' Center. Her character gets to speak most of them, and it sounded fine to my ears. Nothing that I'd write home about, though.
NORIKO (Cloris Leachman): One of my major disappointments of the dub. Her Dola from Castle in the Sky was, and remains, one of my favorite performances from a Ghibli dub ever, but here she doesn't have anywhere nearly as much lines or screen time! And whenever she does talk, she doesn't have very many lines. Her acting sounded fine, but if I were casting this movie, I'd select her as the next character I'm going to bring up.
TOKI (Lily Tomlin): Of the three elderly women, only Toki has a distinctive personality, a cantankerous pessimist who always sees the negative side of things. Vocally, Tomlin is fine for the part and sounds appropriately sharp and snappish, but as mentioned, I'd swap places with Leachman for this part.
KUMIKO (Jenessa Rose): This little classmate of Sosuke's makes a brief appearance, and is as childish and priggish as you'd expect. Her insult of Ponyo is impeccably done, as is her subsequent crying scene. No problems.
I had a hard time identifying the incidental cast, but I did notice names like Crispin Freeman, Colleen O'Shaughnessy, Seth MacFarlane, and others in the credits. I've never had problems with these minor parts, and this is no exception, but I didn't really pick out anybody from my first time around.
No dub is perfect, though, and, aside from my quibbles about Cyrus and Leachman, there were two other things that irked me. While Mathison's script is smooth for the most part, it oddly decides to include Japanese "honorifics" into the dialogue. This includes phrases like "san" and "Sensei". Past Disney dubs have avoided this to prevent confusion with audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture, but as this is supposed to be a translation for a mainstream audience who doesn't resort to subtitles, it comes across as jarring and out of place. Not that it takes me out of the film, but I did find it distracting.
My second, and only really major problem that I have is the handling of the film's end title song. The first half is actually pretty faithful to the original version, with Frankie and Noah delivering the childish-sounding vocals that accompany the credits over some beautiful still-shots. Unfortunately the second half devolves into a blasty techno-style remix which is subsequently less cute and clearly more of a marketing ploy. Considering that the rest of the movie contains a luscious score and a breathtaking opera number for the opening credits, it's a very odd, unfortunate addition... probably the only major problem I've ever had with any of these dubs. In all fairness, though, it only appears at the second half of the credits.
All in all, Ponyo's dub is pretty good. Not five-star material, but it does its job well. I don't think this will be the sort of dub to challenge fans that predetermine to cast off Disney dubs, but if you don't go in with that attitude, it's easier to appreciate the dub as a whole. Not the best Disney-Ghibli dub I've heard, but watchable nonetheless, Ponyo gets a passing grade as an English track.