Ponyo and Sosuke © Walt Disney Company

When it was time for master animator/director Hayao Miyazaki to translate his movie Ponyo into an English-language version, he trusted his friend John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Walt Disney and Pixar Animation, to take the helm.

The story, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, tells the tale of an adventurous little goldfish named Ponyo, who swims away from the safety of her home and meets Sosuke, a five-year-old boy, who makes her his pet. When her magician father brings her back to the ocean, she magically transforms herself into a little girl and finds her way back to Sosuke’s house.

We spoke with John Lasseter about the challenges of translating one of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies.

How difficult was it to get the script and the dialogue to coordinate with the original?

Ponyo and Sosuke © Walt Disney Company
Ponyo and Sosuke © Walt Disney Company

One of the biggest challenges of creating the English language versions of Miyazaki’s films is that I don’t ever want the English version to change anything in Miyazaki’s stories. And so the first thing we do is get a direct translation, even though the sentences will be hard to understand, I just want to know exactly what’s being said. Then I work with Steve Alpert at Studio Ghibli, and we’ll rearrange the words to fit into sentences so we know what’s going on.

Then we took it to Melissa Mathison, the brilliant screenwriter. We sat down and discussed every step of the way what we were doing with this. The goal is to make the film for American audiences, for the language to be very natural, you don’t think of it as being a dubbed Japanese film. We want everybody to just get swept away with the story.

Can you talk about casting the movie to complement the characters that were already drawn and finished?

Ponyo © Walt Disney Company
Ponyo © Walt Disney Company

We really aimed high on this one, and I really credit Kathleen [Kennedy] and Frank [Marshall] for helping get the amazing cast that we have [Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson]. And what’s nice is that everybody, as soon as they found out it was a Hayao Miyazaki film, were like, ‘Yes, I want to do this.’

In Japan, he always records the original dialogue after he’s finished the animation, which is different from what we do in this country. We always record the dialogue before we do the animation. So the lip-sync is somewhat on the rough side anyway, so it helps us try to fit the words in there. But we try very hard working with the actors to get the lines of dialogue to fit with the right mouth movement, because you don’t want to have someone sit there talking and nothing is coming out, or saying a whole bunch a words and there’s no mouth movement. The goal is that the lights dim and the audience in America is taken away by this beautiful story, the visuals and the characterizations.

How would you describe Hayao Miyazki?

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the great film-makers of our time and has been a tremendous inspiration to our generation of animators. At Pixar, when we have a problem that we can’t seem to solve, we often look at one of Miyazaki’s films.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.