02 October 2009


Written & Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Full credits at IMDb

At its heart, Ponyo (Gake No Ue No Ponyo) is a typical, archetypal kids movie: it’s an allegory for puberty, sexual awakening, leaving the nest—for growing up. What sets it apart is the details. By Miyazaki standards, this film is rather basic in its design, brighter and more primary in its color—which means it’s only three times as visually imaginative as your average cartoon. While American studios are still making animals talk—imagine that!—the Japanese master animator is not only transforming goldfish into humans, he’s redefining natural space, opening up a conflict between the waking world and a psychedelic, numinous dreamspace of his own imagination. In the film’s world, the sea is not only home to living creatures; water itself is alive.

Ponyo is a small fish with a humanoid face who escapes the lair of her well-meaning father, a water wizard and Ocean Master (voiced by Liam Neeson, again taking the role of the overprotective father) and finds love on land, before she’s spirited away back to her seabottom bubble. Because she has tasted human blood (and, uh, ham), she’s able to will herself into a little girl, reunite with the little boy she loves, and through a anticlimactically rushed quest that tests their purity, live happily ever after. (Ponyo’s irreducible enthusiasm is quickly grating, as is her general preciousness. This might be a result of the English dubbing; that is, it might be Disney’s fault, not the director’s.) Throughout there are stunning set pieces, the most impressive of which features the humanoind Ponyo racing atop a turbulent ocean whose waves double as giant fish as she chases the little boy of her dreams up the side of a mountain. (He’s in a car.) It works not just because of the bold mythology and majestic imagery, but also thanks to the Wagner pastiche on the soundtrack.

That the ocean is literally alive speaks to a deeper concern; like Wall-E, but far trippier and more spiritual, Ponyo is an environmentalist parable. When a woman sees a man spraying what she thinks is weed killer, she is quick to criticize him for spreading plant poison. When Neeson’s water wizard leaves his ocean bottom home, so vividly imagined that (my) words would only do it injustice, he arrives to find a shoreline strewn with trash. “All this waste and filth,” he says contemptuously. “Humans are disgusting.” Such blatant cynicism would rarely be found in an American cartoon. But Miyazaki isn’t afraid of going past the limits with which his intended audience is accustomed: here, boys bleed, children weep, seaside rocks teem with gangs of spiders that send shivers up the arms. The little girl sitting behind me whined to her mother mid-way through the movie: “this is boring. It’s making me sleepy!” Despite the film’s superficial resemblances to a kid’s cartoon, I doubt children are Miyazaki’s intended audience after all. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:

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