WARNING: SOME NECESSARY SPOILERS
It seems the animation world treats every new film from Hayao Miyazaki as not just an event, but a true cause for celebration. Luckily for all, his tenth feature film, Ponyo gives us all plenty of reason to join in the festivities.
Ponyo is Miyazaki’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic The Little Mermaid. Unlike another film based on the same subject, and also distributed by the Mouseworks, this film features no singing crabs or sidekick carps.
Instead, we have Brunhilda, aka Ponyo (voiced Noah Cyrus), the daughter of a water mage and a/the goddess of the ocean. While we’re not quite sure how really old she is, the film says she’s five but she really has the mentality and, when human, design of a 2-3 year old. She also has the rebellious temperament of a child in the midst of what parents call the “terrible twos.”
The important thing is her father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), appears to be about the only one who realizes just how powerful his little girl truly is. If he doesn’t keep tight rein on her, she could literally destroy the planet. Not that the unruly little girl/fish gives a fig. Her eye has caught on to a lonely little five year-old boy, Sosuske (Frankie Jonas), and she’s as smitten as a post-toddler can be. Poor Fujimoto, who looks like a cross between an elderly Howl and a possible Dr. Who, doesn’t exactly intermingle with humanity too well, either.
The key to all this is from this extremely simple boy-meets-young-goddess plot Miyazaki builds a tale of strange magic, guileless innocence and a lot of charm.
The pace is fast, at the end maybe a tad too fast, and moves with its own turbo-charged logic. While Ponyo herself can be as annoying as a two year-old princess can be, the lonely Sosuske is wonderfully fleshed out and immediately identifiable.
What’s also interesting about this new Miyazaki film is visually it contains many things that his aficionados will find quite familiar, yet still features elements that are fresh and exceedingly bold.
The familiar comes from the point of view of his character designs. With the possible exception of the two key kids and Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamere, all the body designs will look quite familiar, as if pulled from some Miyazaki-like stock book. Not that this is really a quibble. It ends up being a bit of a comforter to see that Sosuske’s mother, Lisa (Tina Fey), is a body design we’ve seen pretty much since his first real film, Nausicaa. Another good example is the three old ladies (Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachmen), who act as Sosuske’s semi-grandmothers throughout the film. It’s undeniable fans have seen those spacey yet wise faces in the past.
Where Miyazaki has really broken some interesting ground though is in his background designs. Ponyo, which is set on an island fishing community, has some of his most surreal use of seaside and undersea imagery to ever come from the master. Throw in the character designs of Ponyo in her fish form, Fujimoto and Gran Mamare, and these scenes make you wonder what it would have been like if Peter Max had ever really done a full-length feature film or if the The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine wasn’t done on such a miniscule budget. It’s that trippy. It’s also just that wonderful.
This brings up another point. Put this film and the recently released Secret of Kells together and you now have a hard argument as to the potential of the “traditionally” animated film. Both movies are true eye candy. They are both far more pleasing to brain and eye than the current Hollywood gimmick of 3-D in any of its variations. Let’s hope a certain Mr. Lasseter is taking note (The Princess & The Frog aside, at least for now).
The fact is, there’s a reason why Miyazaki many times has the suffix “sama” added to his name. His contributions to the animated feature film make him truly one of the greatest of all times. The important point is even though he’s now in his late 60s, Ponyo proves he hasn’t lost his touch.
This sea tale is the kind of stuff that will have you lost in its depths for its way too short time run. Let’s hope the master has a few more tales to tell us.