Ponyo. (Japanese title: Gake no ue no Ponyo, literally “Ponyo on the cliff by the sea”). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 2008. Translated, dubbed and retitled in English by Walt Disney Studios, 2009.
Reviewed by David Emerson
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:1 (#330) in January 2010.]
Miyazaki has done it again. His new film is a visual treat full of wonder and imagination, thrills and spills, tenderness and heart. Like Spirited Away, the story is set in a modern-day Japan that comes into contact with what Tolkien would undoubtedly recognize as Faërie—this time in the form of fantastic sea creatures, half-human beings with mysterious powers, and an actual goddess.
Ponyo is a magical being; more or less a fish, but with a humanoid face. We first meet her in the opening moments of the film, as she departs a strange undersea ship captained by a man standing in an air bubble on its prow. Caught up in a trawler’s net, she is rescued and taken home in a bucket by Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy who lives with his Mom (and Dad, when he’s not on duty as a sailor) in a house high on a cliff overlooking the sea. The story proceeds along two intertwined plot lines, as Sosuke and Ponyo come to care for each other, and the undersea captain Fujimoto tries to get her back, referring to her as his daughter. Strange and wondrous things come to pass, and Sosuke and Ponyo both go through trials and growth changes. “Sometimes we make a leap,” says Sosuke’s mother; and indeed that seems to be the major theme of the film—Ponyo leaps into humanity, Sosuke leaps into responsibility, and the adults leap into believing in the fantastic events affecting them.
Animation fans should not expect this film to be a direct progression from Princess Mononoke to Spirited Away to Howl’s Moving Castle, but that doesn’t matter. With the 5-year-old protagonists and kindly adults, its gentle tone bears more of a (continued from page 3) resemblance to My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Yet there are imaginative wonders galore; I’ve often said that any fantasy or SF work is doing well to come up with even one brand-new idea or image, but Miyazaki films usually have several. Ponyo is no exception; this is prime Miyazki. There may not be any outlandish flying machines in this one, but there are equally outlandish sea creatures. The concepts of where Ponyo comes from, and what the undersea captain is up to, are highly original. Like many Miyazaki works, the environmental message is strong in this one, as a major plot point concerns the balance of nature being upset by Ponyo’s transformation.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. In a break from his earlier work, the backgrounds have a soft-focus feel to them, being done in pastels and watercolors (and what I could swear were colored pencils), so there is less of the hyper-real look that his recent films have had, but it is equally evocative. You can almost feel the wind and the salt spray of the sea. As usual, there are loads of minor details which did not need to have been included for the plot, but which add richness and verisimilitude to the background. And in the Sea Goddess, Miyazaki has created his most beautiful woman character since the sophisticated Gina of Porco Rosso. There are action scenes to keep one on the edge of one’s seat, a few scary monsters (but apparently not too scary for the small children in the theater where I saw this), and a tsunami that gives new meaning to the phrase, “the angry sea.”
As one would expect from Disney’s handling of previous Miyazaki films, the voice talent is superb and the dubbing masterful. Actors such as Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett imbue their characters with necessary gravitas, and Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas are very believable as Ponyo and Sosuke, respectively. Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin are great as seniors in the nursing home where Sosuke’s mother works. Miyazki’s long-time musical collaborator Joe Hisaishi has turned in another marvelous score, with echoes of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Wagner as well as his own earlier work.
We can only hope that Miyazaki-san continues to live a long and productive life, to give us more wonderful films like this.