Mania Grade: B+
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- Rating: G
- Starring: Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Matt Damon
- Written By: Hayao Miyazaki
- Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki
Ponyo: Miyazaki's Fish Story
By Rob Vaux
August 14, 2009
Hayao Miyazaki is the most innovative animator since Walt Disney in part because he appeals to children and adults alike. After the thematic complexities of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, he delivers a decidedly simpler piece in Ponyo: evoking earlier works like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service aimed primarily at younger children.
The animation focuses on basic lines and movement, enhanced by a gorgeous palate but evoking a beautiful picture book rather than anything more visually complex. And considering the gentle, good-hearted tale it tells, such straightforward presentation feels right at home.
Having said that, older kids are likely to become bored. Ponyo features no real villains, no frightening imagery and conflicts of only the most generalized variety: aiming for a few heartfelt messages rather than anything challenging or upsetting. Far beneath the sea, an addled alchemist (voiced by Liam Neeson) struggles to keep the oceans pure of man's influence. He has a brood of goldfish daughters, the eldest of whom (voiced by Noah Cyrus) possesses an endless curiosity about life on the surface world. One day she runs away, eventually ending up in the bucket of a precocious boy, Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas). He quickly realizes that "Ponyo" is more than just a simple pet and resolves to keep her safe in his seaside Japanese town.
The arc cribs liberally from The Little Mermaid, with a magical girl who just wants to be human and various forces trying to stop her. But Miyazaki retains a much sweeter tone than Hans Christian Andersen. Ponyo's father wishes to return her to his ocean home, eventually resulting in a calamitous merging of the sea and surface worlds. But he doesn't act out of malice--merely a father's protectiveness--and while things go wrong, they produce more wonder and awe than actual danger.
Not that it prevents Miyazaki from delivering another of his gorgeous visual feasts. Blue encroaches onto green as the sea rises in search of its missing child, flooding Sosuke's town and leading to astonishing images of prehistoric fish floating eerily along sunken streets. Ponyo further contrasts the two worlds by keeping the undersea animation more minimalist than the sequences on the surface world: Ponyo herself starts out as little more than eyes and a mouth, only to grow more defined and visually developed as her efforts to emulate humanity bear fruit. The imagination on display allows most adults to overlook the lack of narrative heft and enjoy Ponyo for sheer spectacle alone.
The subtler messages lend further weight to the proceedings: blatantly presented, but embodying the same compassion and soft touch as the rest of the film. Sosuke instantly grasps his responsibilities to Ponyo, and strives to uphold them even though they cause him discomfort.
Miyazaki's typical environmentalism is in evidence, but quiet enough to avoid any sense of condescension or lecturing. Ponyo saves its most potent passages for a celebration of motherhood. Sosuke's mom Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey) adroitly balances her single parent duties while remaining refreshingly open to the possibility of magic in her son's world. She's matched by Ponyo's mother (voiced by Cate Blanchett), a goddess of the ocean wise enough to acknowledge her daughter's needs in ways that others can't. An elderly Greek chorus of women at the rest home where Lisa works (voiced by Cloris Leachman, Betty White and Lily Tomlin) further enhance the matronly spirit of the proceedings while providing a little low-key comic relief.
It certainly doesn't feel like any other August movie, and those accustomed to more intense forms of anime may be shocked by the G-rated tone here. But as a celebration of that early period in life--when the world was full of fantasy and magic happened just because you thought it did--it confirms just why this director is so well regarded. It's telling that Pixar's John Lassetter (who has plenty of his own projects to deal with) took the time to direct the English dubbing of Ponyo and godfathered its U.S. release. While it lacks the profundity of Miyazaki's best works, it's resolutely cut from the same cloth: a warm summer treat amid the gunfights and explosions that reminds us how beautiful a child's innocence can be.