A young boy, Sôsuke, befriends a strange looking goldfish whom he names Ponyo. Unbeknownst to Sôsuke, Ponyo is a magic fish who has decided that she wants to live with Sôsuke and the other humans. Unfortunately, Ponyo's decision to give up her underwater life creates a crack in an ancient magic spell, and places the world in danger. Together, Sôsuke and Ponyo must set things right.
(Adapted from ANN)
Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo is, if nothing else, proof to me that the man is as much a cinematic painter as a film director. Here, he largely eschews the ever-present conservationist tone and dramatic fantasy of his other works, with the flying sequences of Nausicaa and Laputa: Castle in the Sky and the dark mystery of Spirited Away giving way to what is, mostly, a mellow tone poem. Indeed, Ponyo is a slow and simple film that flourishes in its meandering tone and leisurely storytelling and, ironically, only loses track of itself during the rare sequences that aim for dramatic tension. It is a movie about childhood joy and the glory of the world seen through the eyes of inquisitive children: a slow journey that is, for the most part, akin to a boat ride on a calm sea just like the one seen here.
While Ponyo does have a solid story, its best effect comes through its vivid displays of imagination, and it is in the vein of many a slice-of-life anime whose characters, atmosphere, and visual sights outweigh the importance of a continuing narrative. The film, designed as a loose modern interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, is ostensibly a movie about a little fish who falls in love with a human child at the displeasure of her sorcerer father, a grouchy and bitter being who makes his displeasure for humans and their refuse as clear as his protective feelings for her. While enjoyable, it feels a bit thin at points, its relative unimportance to the film making Miyazaki's conservationist theme seem a little more preachy than usual. Although Ponyo’s desire to be human is shown to somehow be related to the balance of the world, a point that leads to some dramatic natural phenomena and becomes important to the film’s climax, its strength does not lie in its storyline. Parts of it, particularly the final scenes, feel a bit melodramatic, and while the plot is certainly adequate, it is not what makes the film as special as it is.
No, this movie is made as special as it is by the expansiveness and depth of a look into the beautiful, imaginative world it draws and into a few days in the live of the utterly sweet, funny, and lovable people who live in that world. The ebullient displays of swimming sea animals, the roaring waves that turn into schools of barracuda and then back into water as they crash and pulse, slowly swaying trees and clear skies, and shallow seas filled with brilliantly drawn prehistoric fish (a personal favorite of a paleontology nerd like myself) are what make Ponyo as wonderful as it is, and the artistic skill of Miyazaki, his storyboard artists, and his animators give such spark to these creations that one begins to feel almost as if they have stepped into a real place, a new and veritable universe of its own. The colorful but earthy palette of tones suits the film exceptionally well, and the combination of the spectacular animation and Joe Hisaishi’s score of pulsating horns and shimmering string orchestras make it an especially remarkable experience to behold in a theater (although I imagine that many a private screen will do if equipped with good speakers). It is the rare film in which I felt that every second, whether quiet or tense, was somehow essential, and even if one runs out of sea creatures to spot or Devonian-era fish to identify, the clever character designs, a mix of the classic Ghibli for most of the town’s inhabitants, the almost-punk for the sorcerer, and the simple children’s book for Ponyo herself, will be sure to keep one's eyes on the screen.
A film with gorgeous art and wonderful character designs won’t deliver if its setting fails and characters fail to engage the viewer, but Ponyo excels in that regard: it lives and breathes via the life in its setting and its lovely cast, the experience beginning to feel almost like a physical walk through a strange and beautiful world rather than merely watching a screen. Indeed, the people in this film, from its spunky elderly ladies (another fantastic Miyazaki trademark), to our inquisitive and playful young protagonist Sosuke, to his snarky and firm but kindhearted mother, and to the over-energetic and ever-smiling Ponyo herself, are all of the sort who make one’s life all the more pleasant and worthwhile, the kind whom one finds in the most unlikely places and whose new acquaintance rings of “you know, I think I may just be in good company”. It is in Lisa’s half-joking, half-genuine acceptance of Sosuke’s wild stories, the wandering adventures of the children, the moments at which the old ladies find themselves overtaken by childish glee at the site of the underwater creatures, and, overall, the sense of affection between almost everybody that the film becomes truly beautiful, and while I cannot quite say whether there was any specific theme that particularly affected me, I came away feeling a fair bit calmer and a great deal happier than when I entered. It’s not a movie that strives for philosophical or intellectual depth, and while this has disappointed some of those used to the heavy tone of Miyazaki’s previous few films, I don’t think that it hurts the film at all. If this had been released when I was a child as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were, it would have become as much of a nostalgic childhood favorite as those two have since, and it falls comfortably alongside such plotless favorites as Yokohama Shopping Trip. Indeed, this isn’t really a movie made for those in desperate need of a good story, and those expecting one will most likely be let down, for Ponyo is an experiential film, one designed to be as tactile as a film can possibly get and, for the most part, to flow at the pace of real life.
While Ponyo may not have the flair of some of Miyazaki’s other works, it has a distinctive joy to its own that is better experienced than put cleanly on paper. I admit that the atmosphere may not appeal to absolutely everyone, and because it is so essential to the film’s success, whether you find it to be to your taste or not will probably determine your ultimate opinion of the movie. It’s quite telling that the film is, really, best in the moments where it talks about nothing and most tenuous in the rare sequence where it attempts to have a point, and while Miyazaki may be too far entrenched to entirely take a break from the conservationist and growing-up themes of his last string of movies, he might have made a slightly more cohesive film had he embraced his new approach entirely. Nonetheless, Ponyo is a joy to watch: a fascinating, warming, and vibrant gem of a movie that truly does make one wish they could dive into the screen and swim with Placoderms in a shallow sea.
The one quibble I have with the slightly thin plot makes this a weak five stars, and yet this film is a special one that has slowly turned into a favorite as time has passed (this coming from someone who wouldn’t give every single Miyzaki film five stars, too). — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: This is, truly, a children's movie, but it's more than adequately interesting and intelligent for adults. Those cynical teenagers who roll their eyes at such "childish" entertainment will be missing out.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Ponyo © 2008 Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli
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