Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas
Hayao Miyazaki made his name in America with his most complex and challenging animated films; Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle mixed adventure and unique charm with deeper ruminations on culture and environmentalism that reward older viewers in ways younger fans are likely to miss.
Ponyo ain’t one of those.
Like Miyazaki’s earlier films (say, Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro), this one is directed at a much younger audience, and while anyone who loves imagination can—should—enjoy Ponyo, it’s not as scary or complex as Miyazaki’s recent releases. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” it’s the story of a fishy child of the sea (actually the offspring of a nutjob human and a serene goddess) who falls in love with a human boy and, through sheer tenacity and a little magic, tries to become human.
The boy, Sosuke (“So-skay”), is five, and Ponyo herself seems to be the same age. No clamshell bras or princess romance here—their love is childlike, platonic. They long to be the best of friends, together always—and the obstacles they face are fantastic but not violent or disturbing. There is no bad guy here, no bad people at all, in fact. Even Ponyo’s crank of a father, a subsea alchemist and misanthrope, never menaces anyone as he goes, wide-eyed, in search of his wayward child. And when the story reaches the point where some great test must decide the kiddy couple’s fate, well, we’re simply told that there will be a test, and there you go. It’s story logic that five-year-olds can understand, with stakes—love, friendship, family—that five-year-olds can understand, and thrills that will excite those children without terrifying them.
Sure, you can draw some adult layering out of the story—watch how Sosuke’s mom provides breakfast in an early scene for another of the filmmaker’s gentle digs at modern life. And watch Ponyo’s father cry that she’s changing and she likes a boy to see a quiet portrayal of the overprotective father who doesn’t want his little girl to grow up. There are other examples, including how realistic stress between Sosuke’s parents is portrayed, but the only message here is that love matters, and it’s a good world if we can all just be a little brave when we need to be.
Adults will delight in the whimsical, meandering story style and creative visuals (always the best creatures) that are a Miyazaki hallmark. Nothing unfolds as you’d expect—a perfect thrill-ride storyline (Giant storm! Father lost at sea?) fairly begs to be pursued, but instead Miyazaki focuses on his young protagonists and skips the Hollywood rhythms.
Visually, the film is startling. Backgrounds look like they were textured with crayons and colored pencils, while the character animation looks about as sophisticated as a 40-year-old Disney cartoon. The result is as close to something a five-year-old would draw as it can be and still work as a film, and that’s just genius. In his more “ambitious” films, Miyazaki took pains to integrate computer animation in such a way that he preserved the hand-animated humanity of the film. Here, he sacrifices even that low-tech polish to serve the world and style of his story.
In the American dub, Pixar helps give the characters voice, bringing in real kids manufactured on Disney’s Cyrus/Jonas assembly line, and with Tina Fey as Sosuke’s loving mom, Liam Neeson as the subsea dandy of a daddy, and Cate Blanchett, fittingly cast as a goddess.
It’s rare that you get to see a single creative vision of such scope and grace realized so perfectly on film. Miyazaki is a global treasure, and when you’re able to go see a new film from him, just paying for your ticket doesn’t seem like enough. You kinda wanna send a thank-you note, too.