Release Date: August 14th, 2009 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Hayao Miyazaki Actors: Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas
he works of Hayao Miyazaki are always populated by unique characters and unbridled creativity in fantastically magical worlds. “Ponyo” is no different. However, where his other films, like “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” play upon more adult themes and oftentimes truly terrifying villains, “Ponyo” remains very safely in the realm of whimsical childhood adventure, sadly abandoning the heavy adversity found in previous efforts. Still mildly entertaining, gorgeously picturesque, and wonderfully perceptive to the subtleties of childish innocence that evoke poignant humor, “Ponyo” clearly targets a very young audience.
The son of a sailor, 5-year old Sosuke lives a quiet life on an oceanside cliff with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey). One fateful day, he finds a beautiful goldfish trapped in a bottle on the beach and, upon rescuing her, names her Ponyo. But she is no ordinary goldfish. The daughter of a masterful wizard (Liam Neeson) and a sea goddess (Cate Blanchett), Ponyo uses her father’s magic to transform herself into a young girl who quickly falls in love with Sosuke. But the use of such powerful sorcery causes a dangerous imbalance in the world. As the moon steadily draws nearer to the earth and Ponyo’s father sends the ocean’s mighty waves to find his daughter, the two children embark on an adventure of a lifetime to save the planet and fulfill Ponyo’s dreams of becoming human.
“Ponyo” proves once again that it’s very difficult to base a movie around a child main character. And considering the lead is five years old, legendary animation director Miyazaki must overcome an especially daunting obstacle. Unfortunately, he is unable to infuse any reasoning into this imaginative but empty fantasy. Sosuke is given the largest challenge of his life and the formidable task of restoring balance to the universe when a hole in the fabric of reality is opened. Conveniently, he never actually has to deal with difficult trials, tests of his capability, or proof of his love for Ponyo. Since he is only five years old, it would be a particular nuisance to demonstrate love as anything beyond a simple spoken phrase.
The biggest problem with the film is the lack of any real conflict. Granted that it’s targeting a notably young audience, but “Ponyo” plays out as little more than a series of events that progressively get weirder as Miyazaki starts to explore the supernatural and unusual fantasy – all without explanations or a basis in popular mythology. Never does believable danger creep into the picture, nor a frightening villain or emotional tribulations. It seems insignificant to include a single skeptical character (Toki, voiced by Lily Tomlin) for a timid dose of realism, as she actually questions the phenomena taking place. And she’s presented as a crotchety old wretch, as if normal inhabitants wouldn’t think to raise eyebrows at the bewildering happenings.
At least, the animation during the numerous underwater sequences is complex, creative, and visually stunning. Apparently, so much effort was contributed to these scenes that the human animation is startlingly simple and occasionally ugly. The best part of “Ponyo” is the music, movingly presiding over the grandest tsunami moments and causing milder segments to briefly become more stirring. Ultimately, the film is designed for the smallest of children; but what it won’t teach them is to avoid talking to elderly strangers with wild orange hair and candy-cane-striped suits who emerge from the sea.
– The Massie Twins