Hayao Miyazaki is certainly one to be quite celebrated as there are precious few Japanese anime directors that get the nods he gets from Western directors, actors, writers and animators in Hollywood. Disney’s distribution of his works is certainly a big positive for fans around the world as these wonderful films get even more exposure than they did years ago. After a few years hiatus from doing any major theatrical work, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have returned with something very different from what most of his films have been this decade. Prior to Ponyo, his main theatrical works of the last decade have been Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. All very solid films, but somewhat darker than some of what he became renowned for early on in the late eighties and early nineties.
Ponyo is a return to the kind of whimsical and almost fluffy movies he made back then, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Taking a page from the Little Mermaid concept, the feature revolves around a young goldfish name Brunnhilde who makes a fascinating discovery. When she sneaks off of the ship she lives on with her numerous sisters and her human father, she ends up on the surface after sunning herself only to discover a young boy name Sousuke. Sousuke saves her and the two become quite attached. Naming her Ponyo, Sousuke tries to take her home but ends up losing her back to the sea very quickly. But in that short amount of time, Ponyo learned to speak through the magic given to her by her mother who is the embodiment of the magic of the sea and quite beautiful.
From there, it’s a mad dash on Ponyo’s part to become human, to find a way to get back to Sousuke and be with him. Her desire causes an imbalance in the world due to the kinds of things her father has worked on and are unleashed because of her actions. Her father, Fujimoto, has long held a disdain for the human world, so much so that he left it and only speaks ill. His days are spent doing what he can to repair and harmonize under the sea, railing against the way mankind treats the ocean as a dumping ground while also fearing the return of Ponyo’s mother since she’s quite the woman. When he discovers that Ponyo wants to become human, he’s distraught and does his best to ensure that she doesn’t, even if it requires him to go back up on land and try and retrieve her from young Sousuke and his mother.
Like many of the whimsical Miyazaki films, it’s a very light film in a lot of ways when it comes to the story itself. There isn’t exactly a lot of meat here as the focus is intended on the characters and their emotions as they go through everything. And when you deal with a five year old and a young goldfish, you’re not going to find a lot of depth. But what you do get is some simple yet wonderful innocence as two young souls find each other across difficult boundaries and have to deal with it. Much of the focus eventually centers on the imbalance that Ponyo creates as the sea around the small seaside town becomes caught up in a micro typhoon that’s created because of her actions. There’s danger to be had and a bit of adventure as well, but it’s done in that kind of childhood story design that’s highly appealing because like the folks at Pixar, Miyazaki has mastered the way of making it universal regardless of age.
After the serious films that Miyazaki was involved with, it’s refreshing to see him do something so light and free. Even more refreshing is the traditional animation approach used with it as it gives the film a very distinct look, a look more reminiscent of his earlier works that I find so appealing. Like a lot of directors, the first thing you see of theirs is often the defining one for you and for me that was Kiki’s Delivery Service. Ponyo offers up some very beautiful visuals with its use of the sea and the magic that comes from it, giving it a very striking look throughout but never more so than when the waves start to hit the town. The diversity of the sea creatures below is quite well done as many scenes really give you the idea that the sea is truly alive. The characters are all rather standard Ghibli style designs, which is neither grand nor bad, but at least there doesn’t appear to be a direct Nausicaa character found within the main cast.
With this being released to theaters, a pretty solid cast of voice actors have jumped in to participate in the latest from Miyazaki. Looking back at previous adaptations and the comments made by those who were involved, such as Patrick Stewart and more, there’s a love of Miyazaki that compels that to be involved in any way. The cast here is very appropriate for the most part, though there is a bit of obvious stunt casting involved as well. That’s really just with the leads as you have Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas as Ponyo and Sousuke respectively. Both roles are rather simple child roles so there isn’t a huge stretch required here and both pull off the characters adequately enough. The fun comes from the rest of the cast who get to have a bit more fun. Tina Fey does a good job of conveying a strong but human mother with Sousuke’s mother Lisa while Matt Damon is pretty underused as the seafaring husband Koichi. My real pleasure was in hearing Liam Neeson take on the role of Fujimoto as his voice is so perfectly distinctive for it. And tying him to Ponyo’s mother as portrayed by Cate Blanchett only made me want to see more of the two of them interacting with each other.
Within the larger Ghibli library, I think after a few more viewings that Ponyo will fit in nicely in the middle range of their films that I enjoy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Ponyo and it hits all the right notes. Everyone in the audience enjoyed it, the kids I took to see it were thrilled beyond words with it, and it’s still left a positive impression on them and myself hours later. After the serious films that the director has done, I’m glad to see him go back to something simple and something that he appears to have had a wonderful time working on. This is good all ages material done in the best tradition of early Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service and they will likely have the same impact on new viewers to the world of Miyazaki that those other films had on me twenty years ago. This won’t change your world, but in a sea of sequels, violence and dark comedies, this is a welcome film to flesh out the generally awful month of August.