Sunday afternoon the 23rd, we went out to see "Ponyo," the animated
feature by Hayao Miyazaki, as released in this country by Disney. (The
film was out last year in Japan. Translating the screenplay and
redubbing it into English took the intervening time--.)
This is another beautiful and sweet story from Japan's master of
animation. Although technical innovations have caught up with Studio
Ghibli, making the animation style appear simple and a bit dated
compared with American computer-assisted efforts, Miyazaki has lost
nothing in sheer beauty or imagination, notably the trademark beautiful
landscapes rendered as though in watercolors or pastel chalks. The
opening sequence is a tour de force especially considering it was done
in the 'traditional' fashion.
The plot has been described as Miyazaki's version of "The Little
Mermaid," but it's very far from either the Disney animated version or
even Hans Christian Andersen's original. Not only does this plot lack
the cruelty of Andersen's fairy tale, it manages to have an engaging
plot without having a "villain" as such. (A major difference from the
Disney "Little Mermaid," which had to tack on the monstrous "Ursula"
The movie opens with a beautiful sequence in which we see the Sea King,
Fujimori (English voice by Liam Neeson), seeding the sea with plankton.
The female creature later named "Ponyo" (Fujimori calls her
"Brunnhilda") escapes from Fujimori's care and, after a dangerous
encounter with a harbor dredge, is rescued by the boy Sosuke. (Note:
whatever Ponyo is before transforming into a human shape--the offspring
of a once-human and a goddess, everyone agrees she is a "fish"--she's
not a "goldfish" as the English language translation has it. She has
flippers instead of fins, and a mollusk-like mantle instead of a fish
tail. In fact, she mostly resembles a type of "vampire squid," but I'm
sure that wasn't deemed cuddly enough. See picture at:http://www.sharenator.org/Worlds_strangest_looking_animals/
to the "dumbo octopus" picture--.)
Fujimori's watery minions (more Miyazaki crawling blobs) fetch the
wandering child back, but she shortly escapes to be with Sosuke, in
doing so unwittingly unleashing a cataclysm. Fujimori, disgusted with
humanity's soiling of the seas, has a plan to replace the human world
with a new Devonian ocean full of restored life. However, he's not ready
to put the plan in motion since the "balance of nature" isn't right for
it. It's this that Ponyo activates, which causes peril to Sosuke's
sailor father at sea, and floods Sosuke's island home.
This crisis inspires some of the most thrilling images of the film: the
loosed water elemental waves, rolling and roiling in the form of great
fish; the eerie sunken town with anchored boats hovering in mid-water
like tethered balloons; and Ponyo's mother, the Goddess (English voice
by Cate Blanchett) gliding beneath the ocean, visible to astonished
sailors like a multicolored moonpath in the water.
Miyazaki's vision is the great attraction of this movie, not only in the
beautiful and eerie, but in the mundane as well. No one else captures
the exuberant action of children as well, or their utter boneless
exhaustion when the energy runs out.
Some reviewers apparently found the story too low-key, with not enough
tension. I would disagree. The terrible storm that follows Ponyo's
escape is exciting enough, as is the reaction of Sosuke's mother, Risa,
(English voice by Tina Fey) who refuses to be intimidated by the storm.
In fact, her reckless driving and deliberate risk-taking are some of the
scariest things in the picture. Risa is quite a real character in a lot
of ways. She's genuinely angry with her sea-captain husband when he
disappoints her, isn't easily reconciled, throws things, and
frustratedly goes for a beer from the refrigerator--not something you'll
find in a US Disney animation--. On the other hand, the ultimate
solution to the "test" which will restore the balance of nature is
rather simple, and a bit anticlimactic.
"G" rated, the film is suitable for all audiences although the storm
scenes may be too intense for young children. A funny an comprehensible
adaptation of the screenplay was done by . Having pop-culture figures
Noah Cyrus (sibling of Miley) and Frankie Jonas (of the Brothers)
voicing Ponyo and Sosuke didn't add anything particular, but it must be
said they did a very good job.