Whenever a new Hayao Miyazaki film arrives, you really must make an effort to go and see it. I discovered his films a little late, first seeing Princess Mononoke on VHS (yes, VHS), but I have been able to see Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and now Ponyo on the big screen. There is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the greatest living animators, alongside the likes of John Lasseter and Henry Selick. So, I implore you, go and see this movie, rent/buy his older films, you will not be disappointed. Yes, I know this sounds more like a closing to a review than an opening, but the more I think back on the theater experience, the more highly I think of it.
Ponyo is a movie that works on many levels and can entertain just about any audience. As I think back upon it the layers begin to peel away, and while I do not get all that is going on under the surface, I suspect we are not meant to, otherwise we would have been given more. Sometimes it is best to be left with questions — that can still be a satisfying experience.
The tale told in Ponyo is a simple one, although I guess I should say I have not read the book from which this is adapted. The short description would be "Ponyo is a tale of a boy and his fish." I know, too simple, right? All right, let me see if I can adequately expand on the story at work.
As I sit and ponder my ability to tell the story, I am finding it a difficult task. Yes, I can tell you what happens, or at least give you an idea of the arc it takes. The problem is there is no way I can convey the magic, the fantasy, the sheer poeticism of what is barely contained on the screen. It is art in motion, a tale of great importance to the world at large told through the eyes of the innocent, completely unaware of the implications of their actions.
The film opens with a colorful sequence devoid of dialogue. It is beneath the waters, all manner of fish and other sea critters swim, sway, and dance through the blue. It is quite beautiful to watch. We then see a man, encased in a bubble of air, standing amidst the pastel colors, using a large eye-dropper to place drops of liquid into the water around him. The purpose of this is never completely explained, but by allusion, it is necessary to maintain an ecological balance between the sea and the land.
Emerging from behind the man is a goldfish, seeking to go to the surface. Her escape works, but she finds the waters near the land terribly polluted. She is rescued from the mire by a young boy named Sosuke. For his reward, she licks a cut on his finger, healing it. This has another effect in that it allows the newly named Ponyo to transform from a fish into a young girl, roughly the same age as Sosuke.
This transformation has a side effect — it throws the world out of balance and a terrible storm batters the community, leaving much of it underwater. Sosuke and Ponyo head out on a small toy boat to find Sosuke's mother, all this while the man seen in the opening tries to return Ponyo to the depths.
Sounds like typical fare, right? Perhaps a little similar to The Little Mermaid? Maybe. The best thing is that I really have not told you much.
The story is told through the eyes of Sosuke and Ponyo, the eyes of innocence. They do not understand the consequences of their actions, nor do they realize exactly what is going on. They just know how to be themselves, and that is inherently good. There is much to be said in the film about the way humanity treats nature around them, but they are notes that need to be read out of the film rather than those explicitly told. It goes on to say that our future is in the hands of the young and the goodness they possess, which they need to try to hang onto as they grow up
If Ponyo was about what was going on, the story would told through the eyes of the adults, with stronger focus on Sosuke's mother as well as Ponyo's underwater father. Fortunately for us, we get what can be called an atypical approach and that only helps make the film as successful as it is.
The animation is beautiful, it is vastly different from the animation from American studios, and it works beautifully. It is finely detailed and has a realistic yet dreamy feel to it. Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli do a wonderful job of breathing life into this film.
Bottom line. This is a great movie. It has a lot to say and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. One of the year's finest surprises.