Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: The voices of
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 8/14/09
Review by Mark Dujsik
A colleague of mine described Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo, or Ponyo on the Cliff) as a lesser Hayao Miyazaki work. To a certain, limited extent, I agree with him.
The film is certainly not as thematically detailed as, say, Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, but the film's themes of nature's power and man's interference with it are once again timely and approachable in their simplicity without being overbearing. There's also an enigmatic level of mysticism running throughout the story, which Miyazaki explains just enough for us to understand but still sense a certain awe about it.
It is, to put it plainly, undoubtedly Miyazaki. The film is a wonderful confection of fairy tale (the resemblance to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" is evident) and modern-day concerns told from the innocent perspective of a child, and the end result is similar to the feeling given by Spirited Away—that of some great, undiscovered children's book, found and placed on screen by a master of animation.
The story concerns a young boy named Sosuke (voice of Frankie Jonas) who discovers a strange fish he dubs Ponyo (voice of Noah Cyrus). She's a naturally curious natural curiosity—a fish with the face of a human being.
Ponyo is the unbearably adorable offspring of her father Fujimoto (voice of Liam Neeson), a formerly human caretaker of the sea who keeps nature in balance with all sorts of elixirs aboard his submarine, and Gran Mamare (voice of Cate Blanchett), a beautiful, mysterious goddess of mercy. Ponyo has escaped the sea and her overprotective father to see what life is like above water.
Sosuke is friendless at school, for even when some girls ask to play with him, he says he has a job to do. They think it's weird but apparently the kind of weird not out of character for our young hero. His father (voice of Matt Damon) is off on a seemingly endless shipping run, which is starting to take its toll on Sosuke's mother Lisa (voice of Tina Fey). There's a very funny sequence in which Sosuke relates his mother's disappointment to his father via Morse code on a signal light situated on the home's balcony.
Sosuke discovers his new friend Ponyo trapped in a bottle, after she closely escapes a fishing net that drags up a smorgasbord of debris from the water's depths (Miyazaki's obvious contempt for mankind's disrespect for nature is actively voiced by Fujimoto throughout). She is now his responsibility.
Miyazaki's young hero and his code of responsibility—for himself and others—is the sort of long-lost virtue missing from so many children's films these days. Some of the later conflict is with himself, as he is forced to decide between following his mother's wishes and staying put or going out to find her after a violent storm leaves much of the island town submerged. Even stranger, creatures from before the appearance of man on Earth have replaced cars along the submerged roads.
The supernatural disaster that has left the town mostly underwater is the direct result of Ponyo, who, in a scene reminiscent of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of Fantasia, plays around with her father's elixirs in an attempt to become human. The process works wonders for young Ponyo, who grows almost chicken-like arms and legs that eventually morph until she becomes a girl about Sosuke's age. Ponyo loves ham and Sosuke.
There's a downside, of course, and it comes in the form of the moon coming closer and closer to the Earth, causing the oceans to rise, leaving Sosuke's house on a cliff as a beacon for others.
There are some amazing images here. The silent opening sequence introduces us to the world under the sea, as a school of jellyfish floats from Fujimoto's submarine to the surface, and Ponyo catches a ride on one, resting comfortably in the light that breaks through the water's surface. Later, Ponyo runs alongside a cliff-side road on towering waves to try and keep up with Lisa's driving.
As the moon approaches the planet, a giant wall of water forms, causing a line of ships to be stuck. From afar, Sosuke's dad thinks the lights look like a city. Soon after, Ponyo's mother first appears—a formless, glowing mass just below the surface that transforms into a giant, floating woman.
Miyazaki tells this story with bold color choices. The opening sequences are pastel-like in their simplicity, lending the film the distinct look of a children's picture book. Its later use of swirling colors to depict the mystical is breathtakingly complex. The film is nearly as bright as the tone of its story.
At the heart of that story is the reconciliation of man and nature. How some of the elements of supernatural disaster parallel concerns about the future effects of climate change is unquestionably present. There's no need to make a reading of the film in that respect, as Miyazaki essentially points it out for us, and of course, then, the lesson to be learned from Sosuke and Ponyo is that man must take responsibility for nature.
Aside from the metaphorical, the relationship works on a real level, too. Whether Miyazaki meant the film to be first an ecological parable and second a story of two outsiders who find each other, or vice versa, is unimportant. The one facet cannot exist without the other; they both work splendidly.
As we get older, it becomes harder and harder for a film to genuinely, sincerely, and honestly delight us. Miyazaki has done that with Ponyo, so if it is one of his lesser works, we are truly dealing with a master.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.