PLOT: A young, creature of the sea named Ponyo dreams of living on Earth. When she escapes the ocean and befriends a lonely little boy named Sosuke, she slowly finds herself turning into a human, and the two begin to forge a everlasting bond. Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.
This film was reviewed as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival
REVIEW: I’m going to start this review off with a bit of an embarrassing admission: I’ve never seen a film by Hayao Miyasaki. The legendary Japanese director has created some of the most critically-acclaimed animated films of the last 20 years, including PRINCESS MONONOKE and SPIRITED AWAY (for which he won an Oscar), but I’ve foolishly avoided his work. Unless it has the word “Pixar” attached to it, I’m generally not a huge fan of animation, particularly of the Asian sort, so I went into this film with limited expectations. And while it’s fair to say that some of those expectations were met, Ponyo is undeniably a magical, enjoyable, and distinctly un-Hollywood animated film.
This is all apparent right from the opening scene. Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), is some sort of God of the sea. In Miyasaki’s imaginative world, human-esque beings live under the water as well. But Fujimoto is not your typical well-built, manly, shirtless, Sea God we’ve come to expect from films like Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID (Disney is also releasing this film). Rather, he is extremely gaunt, with red blush on his cheeks, blue eye shadow, and gold hoop earrings under his flowing white hair. In fact, until I heard Neeson’s booming voice, I thought Fujimoto was a woman. And that’s a wonderful thing. Miyazaki feels no need to explain his characters or the process by which Fujimoto creates life, or even what kind of creature his daughter Ponyo is supposed to be (she starts life as a weird human/fish hybrid). The audience is just supposed to accept that below sea level, things run a little differently, a bold decision that I loved.
Once Ponyo makes her out-of-water escape into a tiny coastal Japanese village, she meets a boy name Sosuke and the film’s narrative truly begins. It’s a bit odd watching a somewhat romantic relationship form between two 5 year olds, but it’s a sweet dynamic that takes many magical turns throughout the film. Plotwise, the film lags a little bit since there is no real villain, but a central conflict I won’t give away surely does exist to keeps things afloat.
Unlike most of the modern CG animated films we’re used to these days, Ponyo has the old school two dimensional, hand-drawn look, but Miyazaki paints a beautiful canvas with all the colors of the rainbow (and then some). Also unlike Hollywood’s current slate of animated films, this one is decidedly less for adults and geared more toward a young audience, as most scenes depict the childish adventures of Ponyo (voiced with high-pitched glee by Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah) and her new best friend. Although, with that in mind, there are numerous scenes that’d never fly in American cartoons, such as young children playing with matches and a mother chugging a can of beer because she’s having romantic troubles.
Tina Fey lends her voice as Sosuke’s slightly off-kilter mother, and Cate Blanchett also shows up as a Sea Goddess in a role highly reminiscent of her turn in LORD OF THE RINGS. Betty White is great here as well, and Matt Damon voices Sosuke’s ship captain father, although I didn’t even realize it until I saw his name in the end credits.
Other than the boozing scene, Miyasaki clearly realizes the importance of teaching lessons to his young audience, as the old “Don’t judge a book by its cover” adage is a central theme, as well as several scenes that depict the awful devastation that mankind is leaving on our oceans.
As a whole, the film may not provide as many laughs or pure entertainment value as the Pixar gems we’re spoiled with every Summer, but Ponyo delivers a unique departure nonetheless, giving a bit of cultural perspective, and a providing nice throwback to the glory days of animation. Your kids will love it.