There is something wonderfully wrong with Hayao Miyazaki. I can’t imagine what it must be like inside his head, inside a world of spirits both friendly and malevolent, fantastic creatures, impossible machines and supernatural forces. Miyazaki is revered like a god among animators, and with good reason: no other animation director in history, not even Disney, has so consistently produced films so charming, so creative, full of such spark. His 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away remains one of my favorite films of all time.
In his latest film Ponyo (released last year), Miyazaki shies away from the darker, more adult themes of recent work like Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke, returning instead to the realm of children’s fairy tales that he visited so memorably in My Neighbor Totoro. Ponyo is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Mermaid,” but Miyazaki has certainly put his own stamp on the story.
The details of the narrative are frustratingly fuzzy, clearly aimed at the very broad mindset of a child. Still, it generally goes something like this: Ponyo is the goldfish-child of Fujimoto, a sinister underwater wizard of some sort. Fujimoto despises mankind for what its continued pollution of the ocean, and has been working on an elixir that will somehow purge humans from the planet and usher in a new age for fish-dom. Trying to protect them from the humans, Fujimoto keeps Ponyo and her sisters bottled up. Ponyo gets antsy and escapes to the outside world, where she is found by a young boy named Sosuke. After tasting a bit of Sosuke’s blood (just from a small cut, no vampire crap going on here), Ponyo gains the ability to transform into a human girl. However, somehow this transformation upsets the balance of nature, and the entire town is flooded, forcing Sosuke and Ponyo off on a journey to find Sosuke’s mother.
Miyazaki’s greatest concern has always been the environment and man’s place in the natural world. If you could boil his work down to a single message, it would probably be that man not should, but MUST find a way to co-exist with nature, if we want to survive. Ponyo is that message, distilled down into a children’s fable and tacked on to a nice little story about a fish-girl who wants to be human.
But Miyazaki has dealt with these issues with far more complexity in his previous films, so if you’ve moved beyond G-rated material, the story will be cute, but not terribly engaging. The reason to watch Ponyo, then, is for the pure exhilaration and beauty of Miyazaki’s animation style. The color scheme is a little more pastel-heavy than usual, resulting in an almost sickeningly perfect sky and sea dominating much of the frame, but Miyazaki’s creativity really explodes in the underwater sequences, where fish and crabs and creatures of every sort, many right out of prehistoric times, creep and crawl along the ocean floor. The creative energy practically bursts out of the screen, especially in a thrilling scene where Sosuke’s mother furiously drives ahead of a roaring, relentless wave.
Ponyo is not one of Miyazaki’s best, but it’s comforting to see an auteur filmmaker, especially an animator, still able to pump out quality, imaginative work in a medium too often plagued by sequels and Pixar copycats.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars