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Japanese director Miyazaki seeks breakout U.S. film

By Alex Dobuzinskis
/ Source: Reuters

By Alex Dobuzinskis

Director Hayao Miyazaki is considered a master of animation in his native Japan, and when Disney releases his latest movie "Ponyo" on Friday the studio hopes to score with an entirely different audience -- mainstream U.S. movie fans.

Disney has tried before with other Miyazaki films in the United States and Canada, but has found little success.

In 2003, his "Spirited Away" earned a best animated film Oscar, but only $10 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices. In 2005, his "Howl's Moving Castle" made only $4.7 million in ticket sales.

Elsewhere around the world, "Spirited Away" hauled in $265 million and "Howl's Moving Castle" drew $230 million.

For "Ponyo," Disney went Hollywood with a Miyazaki film by enlisting stars Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett to provide the voices in a bid to bolster the movie's appeal.

Moreover, the studio's chief creative office and Pixar whiz, John Lasseter, who is considered a master of computer animation having directed "Toy Story," "Cars" and other movies, signed up to produce an English-language version.

"I've wanted Disney to distribute all of his films," Lasseter told Reuters. "I want everybody to see all his films, because they're so inventive and fantastic."

Miyazaki, 68, has been called "the Walt Disney of Japan," but he told Reuters through a translator that the tag is unwarranted because the late Walt Disney was a "business person" and he himself is "just a director."

And he was little worried about the U.S. box office success for "Ponyo," which already has made more than $160 million in Japan.

"Since John (Lasseter) is right beside me, it's hard for me to say this, but I'm not that concerned whether it's going to be a success or not," Miyazaki said. "I came here to show that I am responsible for what I made."


In "Ponyo," which was produced by Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, a fish named Ponyo wants to become a little girl, and she befriends a boy named Sosuke in a Japanese coastal town.

Boy and fish fall in love, but when Ponyo magically becomes a human girl, her transformation triggers powerful forces that threaten to upset the world's natural balance.

In the English version, Frankie Jonas, the younger brother of pop music trio the Jonas Brothers, provided the voice for Sosuke, while Noah Cyrus, younger sister of "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus, lent her voice to Ponyo.

"Ponyo" is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." Disney's 1989 version of that tale was a huge hit. Miyazaki updated the 19th century story with images of environmental degradation and renewal.

Miyazaki uses old-style, hand-drawn animation instead of the computer-generated cartoons that for a decade have dominated big-time Hollywood animated movies from the likes of Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.

In large part, owing to his years at Pixar and now Disney, Lasseter is responsible for the shift toward using computers to draw cartoons instead of people. Still, he calls Miyazaki's work "mind-blowing."

"I've never, ever agreed that audiences are tired of watching hand-drawn animation, that they only want to watch computer animation," he said. "Because it's not the medium that makes a movie entertaining, it's what you do with it."