Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo isn’t just a movie for children; it’s a little like one made by them as well. It doesn’t have the epic emotional scope of Nausicaä or even Spirited Away, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to. At heart it’s a loose retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, but its spirit is entirely Miyazaki’s, and its way of seeing the most absurd of happenings through the eyes of a child has infectious charm.
Ponyo opens with the daughter of a deity of the ocean sneaking away from her father, Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson in English). After a mishap with a glass bottle and a trawler’s net, the fish-girl ends up in the hands of five-year-old Sosuke. He’s your typical boy of that age, wildly curious and only too happy to adopt as a pet what to him appears to be a goldfish. But it’s not, and one of the old folks in the neighborhood can see the all-too-human face on “Ponyo” (as Sosuke) calls her: “Fish with faces cause tsunamis!” (There’s a clever bit of filmmaking sleight-of-hand here: we see the face on the fish, but it’s clear Ponyo and his mother don’t. Give them time.)
Then Ponyo is gone, swept back into the ocean by what looks like a tidal wave but is in fact one of her father’s oceanic minions. Sosuke’s glum, his misery compounded by his mother’s annoyance when their father, a boatsman, pulls double shifts and misses dinner. Mom, a feisty lady with no patience for the foolishness of men, flashes “BAKA” (idiot) at him from the signal light on their balcony when his ship passes their house. The rifts in that family are paralleled by Ponyo and her father: she’s determined to go back to the surface, to play with that nice human boy again and eat ham and have hands like him. She soon gets her wish, although it comes at the cost of creating a colossal storm that endangers her very friend’s life. It makes a strong allegory: the destruction that one can wreak when wielding great power is often borne of thoughtlessness, not malice.
Ponyo tasted some of Sosuke’s blood when he broke her out of the bottle she was trapped in. As the movie progresses she waxes and wanes between her human and fish forms, with a cache of magic powers that come and go along with them. The adults around her are nonplussed, even if she is good-hearted to the core and not very clueful about how powerful she can be. The scenes of Ponyo and Sosuke frolicking around in nature bring to mind Miyazaki’s own comments about how kids should have something like that as a formative experience — although the flooding of the town around them is more in line with ominous warnings about the consequences of global climate change. Less effective is the plot mechanics of the final third of the film, which reduces itself to a good deal of running around and where big problems are ultimately solved with what amounts to hand-waving. (Then again, they were brought into the story with what amounts to hand-waving anyway.)
The movie works best on an emotional level rather than anything story-driven, which is fine. I liked how Sosuke’s mother forms an unexpected foundation for a good part of the movie, instead of being brushed aside as an inconvenience like so many other animated films do with adults. For one, she has an identifiable job: she works in a rest home adjoining the boy’s preschool, where we are invited to compare the very young and the very old. When there’s storms beating at the windows of her house and a fish-turned-human girl running around underfoot, her response is to square her hips and make household chores into a game. I would have liked to see the substance of her discussion with Sosuke’s mother: two moms talking shop.
All of Miyazaki’s trademark visual elements are on display here — the processions of creatures, the way chaos overwhelms order and creates new things in its wake. They’ve all been put to use by the movie’s larger design: most every shot of the ocean is teeming with life, and later in the film when a flood overwhelms the land the fish swim across our highways and between our trees. The movie also has a look that’s directly derived from the pastel-and-primary-colors visual scheme of a storybook (e.g., Stormy Night), and so it’s delightful to look at in every shot. Absurd at times, too, as when Sosuke and his amazingly unperturbed mother drive home in a terrible storm with waves arching over the top of their car. But then you realize this is the way a child would see this, and the absurdity suddenly has context again.
The movie works best when giving us simple human warmth,
less so when depending on plotting or even spectacle to move things forward.
It’s bordering on a cliché to say that even one of Miyazaki’s lesser movies is more of an achievement than other filmmakers at their best. It’s true, though. This is a good film, and children will love it. But for me it’s at best a stepping stone to Miyazaki’s real masterworks.