Ponyo (the original title, Gake no ue no Ponyo, translates to Ponyo on the Cliff) is the latest film from the Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, spruced up for American audiences by the folks at Walt Disney Pictures. Those who consider Miyazaki a filmmaking master will probably consider this another one of his masterpieces. For the rest, it’s a harmless enough way to waste an hour and 45 minutes.
The movie’s press materials acknowledge that Miyazaki’s script was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid.” The connection is easy to see, but the version Miyazaki comes up with would probably have the austere Dane scratching his head even more than Disney’s 1989 version did. The main character isn’t a mermaid, it’s a whimsical little undersea creature that looks like a Cabbage Patch doll in a red nightgown. When she becomes trapped headfirst in a glass jar and washes ashore, she’s rescued by a boy named Sosuke who cries, “Why, it’s a goldfish!” (Audience response: Goldfish? Well, OK, if you say so.)
Sosuke puts the (ahem) goldfish into a bucket and names her Ponyo—although we later learn that her father (who looks like Mick Jagger dressed as an Edwardian carnival barker) calls her “Brunhilde.”
Meanwhile, Ponyo, having tasted human blood by licking Sosuke’s cut thumb, rears up out of her water bucket, crying, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” She has also discovered a taste for ham and a desire to become human. She uses her magic powers first to transform herself into something like a chicken, then to become more or less fully human (and looking like Little Orphan Annie’s kid sister). In the process, however, she has somehow upset the balance of nature and caused a massive typhoon, during which the moon comes too close to the Earth, causing the seas to rise and flood the area where Sosuke and his parents live. Brunhilde/Ponyo’s parents (her mother is an ethereal goddess whose size changes from moment to moment) agree that the balance of nature can be restored only if Sosuke loves Ponyo back.
Are you getting all this?
If you admire Miyazaki, you might want to nudge this review’s rating up a notch or two, because Ponyo exhibits many of his standard themes—childhood, environmentalism, magic. Personally, however, while I recognize and appreciate Miyazaki’s talents, I don’t particularly admire them; I find his vision not epic but merely grandiose. As in his earlier movies (Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, etc.), it seems he can’t tell a simple story without the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. His images are colorful and often striking, with a kind of vivid beauty that I think is unforgettable as I’m looking at them, but that I find don’t linger long in my mind; what I remember of Miyazaki’s movies is how pretty the images were, rather than the images themselves. And where others see brilliant imagination in his stories, I frankly find them just plain wacky.
I don’t really think of Miyazaki’s movies as animation, but as something more like moving illustrations. Grand and sweeping movements like the soaring flights of great birds, or great ships plunging among the waves of a roiling sea, have a sweeping visual majesty. But the simplest and most rudimentary movements—like, say, a person walking or waving or rowing a boat—are stiff and jerky; it makes me wonder if such things are beyond the abilities of Miyazaki and his animators, or if they simply consider them beneath their notice.
Disney animation chief John Lasseter has given Ponyo a classy makeover for the American market, with voice work by Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Sosuke’s parents, and Cate Blanchett and Liam Neeson as Ponyo’s. For Sosuke and Ponyo, Lasseter turned to younger siblings of established Disney stars: Sosuke is voiced by Frankie Jonas (whose older brothers are Disney’s pop heartthrobs), while Ponyo’s voice comes from Noah, kid sister of Miley Cyrus. Other voices include Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman as nice old ladies at the senior center where Sosuke’s mother works.
Ponyo is decent enough family entertainment, but don’t be surprised if your smaller kids grow a little restless now and then.