By Don Simpson | August 24, 2009
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer(s): Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Japanese version: Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Tomoko Yamaguchi, George Tokoro, Kazushige Nagashima English version: Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Laraine Newman, Madison Davenport, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Lily Tomlin
Ponyo (referred to as Brynhildr by her father, Fujimoto) is a fish girl who lives in an aquarium in her human (?) father’s underwater castle with numerous smaller fish sisters. She is driven by an unyielding desire to see and experience the world that her father is trying so hard to protect her from – a world run by environmentally careless humans. Ponyo escapes her father’s grasp and ends up stuck in a bottle stranded on the shore of a small fishing town. Sōsuke – a five year-old boy who lives on a cliff high above the sea – rescues Ponyo; they are instantly enamored with each other and their fates permanently entwined.
Fujimoto – furious that his daughter escaped – uses magic to call upon the wave spirits to return Ponyo to him. Once returned to her father, Ponyo expresses her intense desire to not only return to land but also to become human. Fujimoto summons Ponyo’s estranged mother, Granmammare, for assistance with their rebellious daughter. But before Granmammare arrives, Ponyo escapes again – this time with some of her father’s magical powers which she utilizes to become, albeit temporarily, human.
Ponyo’s use of magic creates an imbalance in the world, which in turn results in a huge storm, which raises the sea level to its prehistoric reaches (and reintroduces ancient extinct fish such as the Gogonasus and Licosus to the sea) and floods a majority of the coast. Fujimoto and Granmammare declare that if Sōsuke and Ponyo can pass a test, then Ponyo will become permanently human and the world will return to its ecological balance.
Narratively, Ponyo works in a similar manner to the “make believe” worlds of young children. Call it stream-of-consciousness, surrealism or dream logic – the story drifts seamlessly (and not always logically) from one plot point to the next. Things are not always what they seem, as waves morph into large fish and small fish morph into children and the plot morphs and morphs and morphs…
In an attempt to make Ponyo kid friendly (it is rated G), Miyazaki all-out avoids conflict, violence and suspense. There is a villain (namely Fujimoto), but as is the case with most of Miyazaki’s villains, Fujimoto is a dynamic character and highly capable of change. For example, despite Fujimoto’s disdain for humans, he still grants Ponyo the chance to become permanently human. Unfortunately, by dulling Fujimoto’s intensity and anti-human perspective, Ponyo all but loses the environmental punch that prevails in most of Miyazaki’s films.
One characteristic that does prevail in Ponyo is Miyazaki’s use of strong female characters. With the exception of Sōsuke’s mother – who is not only a horribly reckless driver but also has no qualms about leaving her five year-old son and Ponyo alone (at night during a mysterious earth-changing Tsunami no less!) while she goes to help the senior citizens at her work – the female characters are quite impressive and do not hesitate to speak with great power and authority. Sōsuke is the only positive male character – yet he possesses the traditionally feminine characteristics of being caring, nurturing and loving. Sōsuke’s father, a sailor by trade, spends a majority of his days out at sea absent from Sōsuke’s life; Ponyo’s father is overly protective, possessive and paranoid.
For the U.S. release (distributed by Walt Disney Pictures), Ponyo is voiced by Noah Cyrus (Miley’s nine year-old sister) and Sōsuke by Frankie Jonas (eight year-old brother of Jonas Brothers). Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett lend their celebrity voices as well – to neither the detriment nor the benefit of the film. (As with Miyazaki’s other films, I bet I’ll prefer the Japanese version with English subtitles over the U.S. version.)
Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki’s eighth feature film for Studio Ghibli, and his tenth overall. After employing computer-generated imagery and digital ink for Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo marks Miyazaki’s return to traditional hand-drawn animation. As we have come to expect from Miyazaki, the foremost 2D animator in the history of cinema, the artwork of Ponyo is impeccable and awe-inspiring.
At age 68, Miyazaki is still able to channel the playful, curious and fantastical mental acrobats of children better that any other living storyteller. If you want to know what your five year-old child is daydreaming about while you’re vacationing on the coast this summer – I bet they are dreaming about a world that is eerily similar to Ponyo.