Ponyo Review

What struck me first about the animation in Ponyo is how traditional it looks. Not really dated, but certainly old fashioned in the classic sense. It would appear that Studio Ghibli don’t really alter the look and method of their productions. Of course, they don’t need to, when they’re maintained at this quality. It goes without saying that the animation is superb. Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki once again devises spectacular visuals and imaginative fantasy elements to compliment his timeless stories.

The template behind Ponyo is familiar to most. It’s the story of a sea-creature who falls in love with a surface-dwelling boy, to the disappointment of her father, who she then escapes from and defies by transforming into a human girl. This isn’t The Little Mermaid, however, as Miyazaki merely uses that basic template to inspire an original tale that’s less about romantic pursuit as it is about… Well, a different kind of love.

Instead of Prince Charming, we get five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), who adopts a talking, ham-eating goldfish washed up ashore and names her Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). They declare love for each other, which grows stronger after her transformation. Unfortunately, their species-defying love upsets “the balance” and nature goes haywire, prompting Ponyo’s sorcerer father (Liam Neeson, apparently in a getting-my-daughter-back kick) to pry her away from Sosuke for the sake of the planet.

The love between Sosuke and Ponyo is instantaneous and unbreakable. They fall in love quick and steadfast, which might be why it feels unremarkable and lacking to watch. Although, maybe that’s only if we apply a romantic skew on it. Sosuke is a toddler and Ponyo knows nothing about humans. Is this love romantic? Or is it familial? Platonic? It could simply be the love between a pet and its master (is there a name for that?). Perhaps—and this is easier to see because their bond is never challenged—it’s meant to be symbolic. They fall so easily for each other because they simply have to.

There’s an undeniable fact that humans are in a relationship with nature, and humans must shoulder the responsibility of that commitment. Ponyo’s father believes that the answer is to keep the two apart, but her sea goddess mother (Cate Blanchett) is more optimistic of the union. The whole point of the film is a test for Sosuke, to see if he can mature enough—little as he is—to earn the right to keep Ponyo. What about us? I’m reminded of a George Carlin joke, about how the planet is doing fine, but it’s us humans who are in danger. Isn’t it more of a test on us to prove if we deserve to have our Ponyo?

Sosuke’s sea captain father (Matt Damon) is always regretfully away at sea, leaving Sosuke only in the company of his often frustrated but readily loving mother (Tina Fey). We never really find out what exactly Sosuke’s dad does at sea, but it’s an intriguing gap to fill in, particularly when you consider a brief and understated moment where we see sea vessel leaving a trail of pollution. As in many of his previous films, Miyazaki reminds us all to show some respect for nature, but would never bring this call into the foreground of his stories.

Ponyo, foremost, is a cute film. It’s disarmingly cute. It’s not afraid to push aside the advancement of the plot to indulge in adorable moments where Ponyo, new to the human experience, appreciates basic pleasures like using a towel or eating a bowl of noodles. This is where the heart of the film lies, and the voice actors really pull them off (I’m referring to the English dub, which is the only version available theatrically). Noah Cyrus, especially, communicates Ponyo’s glee so well that it’s infectious. It’s reminiscent of Totoro in how it puts more emphasis on the family dynamic, particularly Sosuke and his mom.

Okay, so it’s willfully light in plot and the conflicts are all so neatly resolved, so it might not register on adults as much as the pull of a more journey-oriented narrative like Princess Mononoke, but it is very innocent, very sweet and very funny—perfect for the young and simple, who are what Miyazaki considers his core audience anyway.

"Ponyo" opens August 14, 2009 and is rated G. Animation, Children & Family, Fantasy. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Starring Betty White, Cate Blanchett, Cloris Leachman, Frankie Jonas, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Matt Damon, Noah Cyrus, Tina Fey.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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