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Movie Review: Ponyo

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I once heard director Quentin Tarantino say that he watched Chungking Express entirely through a blur of tears. The movie was so perfect and so beautiful that he couldn’t contain himself. I remember thinking, “What a wuss.”

Well, I’m now going to eat those thoughts. I just watched Ponyo, the latest movie from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, and I now know exactly how Tarantino felt. Ponyo is so splendid that I couldn’t hold back the tears. I guess this makes me an even bigger wuss. At least Chungking was made for grownups. Ponyo is a G-rated cartoon made for kids.

And parents, how often do you hear the words “G-rated” these days? Not even movies from Pixar get that stamp of family approval. And yet, here we have the best family movie in years, dropped on us from the skies by a messenger from Japan. (Don’t worry about subtitles. Disney, its U.S. distributor, has done a fine job dubbing the movie in English using the likes of Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and Tina Fey.)

Ponyo re-tells the classic fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" in fresh and colorfully eye-popping new ways. Hand-painted (another rarity these days) in what looks like watercolor pencil, the setting is filled with Miyazaki’s trademark vivid pastel green foliage and blue skies and rolling white clouds. And the characters populating the story are both familiar and wildly and wonderfully exotic.

Sosuke, the five-year-old son of a wayward sailor, lives with his mother on the side of a cliff by the sea. He’s an adventurous boy and she’s a liberating mom who gives him plenty of room to grow. No adventure and no opportunity to grow though can quite compare with what he discovers floating in the white-wash of the sea one day.

He finds what he immediately says to be a “goldfish” – although it appears more like a redfish with a girl-like face – stuck helplessly in a bottle. After setting it free, he quickly falls in love with the little creature, names it Ponyo, and promises to protect it forever. He then steals away home with it to show his mother.

But the sea itself is upset, thrown out of balance, by her removal as if it’s an abduction that threatens the fabric of nature. It was human pollution that caused her predicament and now a human is taking her away. The ocean waves come alive and have eyes and try to steal Ponyo back from Sosuke’s hands. They chase him all the way home.

Most perfect is the wordless opening sequence that introduces us to Ponyo and her hundreds of brothers and sisters as she is inexplicably drawn toward the ocean’s surface. The animation art is almost child-like in its simplicity. It’s a refreshing change from the over-cooked realism of so much animation these days.

Most awe-inspiring is how the solar system is so profoundly affected by Ponyo’s departure from the sea that the moon is drawn toward the Earth causing the oceans to rise and engulf the planet. And most magnificent is the appearance of Ponyo’s mother, but I’ll leave that for you to experience.

This may be Miyazaki’s most masterfully realized vision of his favorite subject. He is one of the art world’s most impassioned environmentalists. Ponyo opens with Ponyo threatened by a polluted ocean floor and nearly ends with mankind obliterated by rising ocean waters following man’s abuse of nature.

Hopefully, the real world’s environmental story will end as happily as Ponyo and Sosuke’s — man and nature saving each other by declaring their love for each other.

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About Todd Ford

  • Nice review. Miyazaki continues to amaze me. Princess Mononoke, for example, was one of the finest movies I’ve seen. Looking forward to seeing Ponyo.

  • Ted

    Loved your piece. It’s great when a review makes you want to see for yourself what the critic is describing.

  • Add me to the fans. I was on the bubble about seeing this movie, though I should have known better, since I tend to love Miyazaki’s films.

    Now your evocative descriptions have made me want to see this, and soon!

  • Ricki

    This movie was so UnDisneylike. I was mortified by it.
    The mother is portrayed as an out of control woman who in one scene, drinks until she passes out. She leaves the 5 year old child home alone and tells him, “he is the man of the house”

    The parents fight via morse code. The dominate male character looks like a cross dresser with purple eyeshadow.
    The whole thing was weird and distrubing!!!!
    DO not go to this movie, you will be disappointed.