Movie Review: Ponyo
It’s not particularly close-minded or inaccurate to describe the Japanese approach to animation as somehow weird — strangely, beautifully, playfully, colorfully, sometimes violently weird. This is true at least in as much as we can say as Americans, watching from our country half-way across the globe, and not at all a judgment considering how wonderfully weird it can be. But there are few Japanese filmmakers, if any, who have applied this style in a more universally heartwarming fashion than Hayao Miyazaki. The creator of such cross-over classics as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki has charmed audiences in Japan for decades with his brilliantly drawn and dream-like fables.
To describe the story of his latest creation Ponyo is deceptively simple: A young boy name Suske discovers a colorfish fish, Ponyo, who magically becomes human. But when her desire to stay with Suske threatens the very balance of nature, their friendship must be tested before things can be set right. At its most basic level, this simple description sounds normal enough, though it leaves out details like the following: Ponyo only becomes human after tasting Suske’s blood; Ponyo’s father is an undersea wizard who looks like 1970s David Bowie; her mother is Mother Nature herself; Ponyo is a fish who loves ham sandwiches; the sea pursues Ponyo in the shape of giant whales made of water; Ponyo’s meddling causes the moon to approach the Earth and raise the tides; Suske’s mother works at a retirement home with some rather bizarre residents; a giant flood brings creatures from the age of the dinosaurs back to the surface.
Ponyo may indeed be Miyazaki’s most narratively odd movie in quite some time – which is saying something, to be sure – but its design and tone are that of a child’s bedtime story. The world of Ponyo is one seen through a child’s eyes, operating by a child’s rule, so logic be damned in favor of emotion and spectacle. Color is king here, painting every edge of the world, both above and below the surface of the sea. Ocean blues and Ponyo’s pink scales offset the lush greenery of the island and its myriad of multi-colored flowers and foliage. But most importantly, the relationship between Ponyo and Suske, made of the boundless love and affection that children can share for one another, truly drives the film. Every adventure, every sequence, every magical moment is precipitated by their desire to stay together and their utter willingness to believe that magic is not only possible, but real.
The American voice cast leaves a little to be desired, offering that quasi-overacted quality to the English dubbing, though thankfully the children work wonderfully. This isn’t to say that they may not be overacting as well, but only to say that it makes sense that children might react to the world with that broad, matter-of-fact delivery. The cast includes Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Suske’s mother and father, as well as Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s mythical parents. But the real star here is the visuals, the colorful, lush hand-drawn animation that makes Miyazaki films such a feast for the senses. We wouldn’t be so foolish as to say it’s his best film to date, but Ponyo might just be his most imaginative, vibrant and family friendly tale in quite some time.