Review: Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki has captured the imagination of audiences young and old across the globe, and his most recent cinematic work of art is “Ponyo,” a children’s fairytale borrowing on story elements from The Little Mermaid. Of course like other Miyazaki classics such as “Spirited Away” and his last film, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Ponyo” is full of a creativity that can only be truly appreciated by adults, but this it is distinctly more a children’s story than those recent efforts. It’s a magical story best described as beautiful and lovable, aiming for charm instead of conflict.

“Ponyo” is the story of a bug-eyed childish-looking fish of the same name, the daughter of an undersea sorcerer, who longs to escape the sea and become a little girl. When she does, she quickly befriends a young boy named Sosuke. In the process she gains a strong magic and unknowingly throws the world out of balance between land and sea, and a giant storm drowns most of the cliff-top town where Sosuke lives with his mother, and it threatens to end the world.

Like “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Walt Disney picked up “Ponyo” for an American release and dubbed it over with an impressive selection of Western voices, even choosing homegrown products in the youngest siblings of Disney band the Jonas Brothers (Frankie Jonas) and Miley Cyrus (younger sister Noah) to voice Sosuke and Ponyo, respectively. Also voicing characters are Liam Neeson (Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father), Tina Fey (Lisa, Sosuke’s mother), Matt Damon (Sosuke’s father), Cate Blanchett (Ponyo’s sea goddess mother) and a trio of hilarious elderly women are played by Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin. The effort is definitely there to make this film appeal to American audiences and Disney is getting close.

But voices are of little significance in a Miyazaki film, which is all about visual creativity. A fan of transformations and animating liquid and fluid motion, creating a fairytale taking place partly underwater must’ve been a joy for Miyazaki to work with and maybe even his entire motivation for choosing this story. Among the highlights are droplets of water that Fujimoto sends after Ponyo that move like living waves, as well as a variety of other magnificent sea creatures and breathtaking storm scenes make “Ponyo” as awing as any other Miyazaki film.

As a children’s story, however, “Ponyo” concentrates its efforts on being adorable. The discovery of true friendship and love between Sosuke and Ponyo is heart-warming, even if Noah Cyrus shouting childishly when Ponyo excitedly embraces human life can get a bit annoying. But as delightful as many of the imaginative elements and loving relationships are, there’s very little antagonism or danger. Past Miyazaki films have clear villains, but the conflict in “Ponyo” actually shrinks as the story goes along. Sosuke believes he’s lost his mother at one point and in the background is the idea of the world going out of whack and that humans should be ashamed of polluting the sea, but “Ponyo” is mostly tension free. Most glaringly, its climax is uneventful despite how overall likable all the characters are.

“Ponyo” will surely satisfy Miyazaki’s fans in every way with its imagination, and newcomers will still be smitten by his simple yet visually ambitious storytelling, but this is distinctly more of a children’s movie, best for families and others who love fantasy regardless of its form or target audience. It’s not quite what you’d expect from Miyazaki considering his recent work, but it’s sure to be remembered as another of his beloved stories.

3.5/5 Stars

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (voices) Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey


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