Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars (English dub): Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey
Released: 14 August 2009
No spoilers to be found here!
Studio Ghibli has produced some of the world’s best animated films, both in terms of animation and overall execution. Ponyo is a return to the familiar for director Hayao Miyazaki, harking back to his earlier, more simple works like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Whilst looking fantastic, some narrative shortcomings hinder Ponyo from becoming another classic in Miyazaki’s collection. Despite this, it is well worth checking out and should delight even the moodiest of people.
Ponyo takes place in a small coastal town, where five year old Sôsuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas) lives alone with his mother Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey). While having their own everyday problems, the two of them live a perfectly good life. One day, whilst playing at the beach, Sôsuke finds Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus), a small fish-like creature. He brings her with him to kindergarten and they quickly take a liking to each other. But little do they know what Ponyo has caused by leaving her home and father of the ocean, Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson).
The synopsis might make you think about The Little Mermaid and that is no coincidence. Ponyo is based on the same book by H.C Andersen as the Disney-film, but that is were the similarities end. It is clear that Miyazaki wanted to make a movie fit for smaller children, as this is a very colorful and simple story. The main drama of the movie are the relationships between our main characters, and they are all greatly executed and feel genuine. Sôsuke and his mother Lisa have a very human relationship, Lisa is a determined and hotheaded woman, while Sôsuke is calm and thoughtful. Together they face the hard reality of Sôsuke’s father being a sailor and not able to come home that often. Some of the film’s most touching scenes tackles this dilemma and makes for some heartfelt moments.
Ponyo is an instantly likable character, partly because she is half-fish, but mostly because she is adorable. Since everything on land is new to her, she wants to know about everything there is to know about. What food tastes like, how you live in a house, what a baby is etc. Because Sôsuke and Ponyo are both young and naive with a lust for adventure they instantly create a believable bond. But the most impressive thing about the writing is how the mother-son relationship is intertwined with Sôsuke and Ponyo’s, creating almost a family dynamic which plays into the previously mentioned problems the family was already having. Whilst all the characters are well-written, it’s the relationships that develops between them that is most impressive and the best part of the movie. Out of all of the movies from Miyazaki’s filmography, Ponyo reminds me the most of My Neighbor Totoro, which followed a similar concept. A simple, but personal story filled imaginative scenery and heartfelt drama.
Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most beautiful animated movies of all time, and Ponyo is no exception. They put so much time and effort into every drawing, it always feels like I am watching moving paintings. However, Ponyo may be one of the most gorgeous films to ever come out of the studio. Even though it may look similar to Hayao’s other films, there is this certain colorfulness to Ponyo not present in his other work. I don’t know if it was because the movie is directed at a younger audience than say Princess Mononoke or The Wind Rises, but it looks beautiful. But since the story features underwater sequences, it lends itself very well to their style of animation. Later on in the movie, the team got to draw some truly wonderful imagery and with the enhanced colors it makes Ponyo one of the best-looking movies from Studio Ghibli, and that’s saying a lot.
While the aforementioned simple storyline of Ponyo is well executed, the main problem of the movie is actually with the screenplay. As mentioned in the synopsis, Ponyo leaves her father of the ocean, Fujimoto, and in the process starts a chain-reaction that will make the moon crash onto the planet and effectively ending the world. While this may sound exiting, it really has no place in this kind of movie with such a simple core plot. It feels out of place and retracts from the urgency of the actual storyline of the movie with it’s grandness. I understand why this was added, the creators wanted some kind of repercussions of Ponyo leaving the ocean in order to motivate her father to take action. But I don’t think it was necessary to make it such a big event, even though he is kind of a half-god. They should have written it so that Ponyo’s family problems meshes on the same personal level as with Sôsuke’s. It would serve the same purpose, but then the family drama of both main characters would have blended really well and would make them relate even more.
My other big issue with this side-plot is that it wasn’t even that well-executed. The best thing about it is that it gives us some amazing scenery, but other than that it is kind of forgettable. We are talking about the apocalypse, this shouldn’t be forgettable. But in a movie like Ponyo, where it has no right being, it becomes hard to care for. The storyline has a real anti-climatic ending as well, making the entire scenario seem unnecessary, which it was. I mentioned earlier that Ponyo is similar to My Neighbor Totoro, they both have simple but touching storylines. But were Totoro only focused on it’s simplicity and character drama, Ponyo tries to shove so much extra stuff into the latter part for seemingly no reason. In the case of Miyazaki, less is usually more.
Another issue with the movie is with how the apocalypse-storyline takes front row and retracts from the actual drama of the movie. Whilst the relationship between Ponyo and Sôsuke, as well as Sôsuke and his mother, are well-handled throughout the entirety of the runtime, there are some missed opportunities with some sub-plots. The family has some problems regarding an absent father, which produces some great scenes of drama. But it’s never resolved, after the apocalypse-storyline is finished, the movie kind of ignores this sub-plot, making for an unsatisfying conclusion. Maybe it wasn’t planned to expand this sub-plot further, but as of now it feels as if they had to cut a lot of it out in order to make room for the big an epic storyline, which was totally forgettable.
At it’s core, Ponyo is a really good movie. A simple but effective and personal storyline with some truly tear jerking scenes. The main characters are well realized and the way the relate to each other makes for great drama. The movie is absolutely gorgeous, one of the best looking movies ever to come out of Studio Ghibli, the studio that produces the world’s best looking movies. But the movie tries so hard to jam in this other storyline about Ponyo’s father and the end of the world. It takes up a lot of the runtime, it retracts from the other parts of the story and is itself not particularity interesting. The movie hasn’t a great climax, as some storylines have a good payoff but others fall flat. In the end, Ponyo is half a great movie, half an unfocused mess. It is still a good movie, but it has so many issues that drag it down for me. I usually like to revisit Ghibli-movies over and over, I love the imagination and art style and the feeling of being a kid again. But from Ponyo I don’t really get that feeling and I have no real desire to go back to it for quite some time. Still super-pretty though.
Cover image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzG96HRN3_E