Ponyo is the latest work by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, most known to Western viewers for his Oscar winning tale Spirited Away. Like all of Miyazaki’s films, Ponyo was originally released in Japanese but then dubbed in English using a variety of well known American and British actors. And it was scored by famed composer Joe Hisaishi.
The core tale in Ponyo is a familiar one. A fish has an encounter with the world of humans and uses magic to become human herself. Her transformation is not without costs but the love of a human allows her to remain human forever. It is a story known to the English world and Disney fans as “The Little Mermaid.”
In Miyazaki’s version of the tale, 5 year old Sosuke is playing on the tiny beach by his home before school when he spies a fish trapped in a bottle. He frees the fish and gives it a new home in a bucket of water along with a name, Ponyo. Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is magical, first healing a cut on Sosuke’s finger from when he freed her and then learning to talk. Her father however sends the ocean waves to retrieve her, leaving Sosuke heart broken.
Ponyo’s father is a kind of underwater wizard and her mother is an ocean spirit, which explains Ponyo’s magic. Her magic is very strong and allows Ponyo, having tasted human blood, to transform herself into a human and run away while her father is out of the house. In the process, she unleashes a vast amount of magic that throws nature itself out of balance, causing huge storms and the oceans themselves to rise up, flooding the world. To rebalance the world, Ponyo must either remain a magical fish or become human. But the power to choose lies in Sosuke, whose love for Ponyo is needed to make her human (and non magical). In the end, he declares that he loves Ponyo even when she is a fish and she is able to remain with Sosuke and grow up with him.
One of the joys of this film is the animation itself. In this age of computer animation, assisted stop motion, 3d etc, it is an odd but somehow satisfying choice to see simple old fashioned hand drawn animation. Despite the ‘simplicity’ it is still rich and colorful. Hisaishi’s classically inspired score fills in any gaps with its humor and emotion.
However, Miyazaki’s storytelling is not for everyone. There are high points like Ponyo’s exploration of her new home and odd but sweet charm in giving her sandwiches and soap to a family they encounter along their journey. But there are also low points. The translated dialogue is at times contrived and stilted. There are odd lapses of logic such as leaving a 5 year old at home alone in the midst of a Tsunami strength storm, or even insisting on going home despite the dangers of the storm. Also, the thread of Sosuke’s father being a sailor is tossed out there and then nothing until he simply reappears at the end. And some might scoff at the heavy handed environmentalism that appears in many of Miyazaki’s films. All of this makes Ponyo perhaps not Miyazaki’s best work (a title I still say belongs to Howl’s Moving Castle), but I still found it a worthy film to watch.