Last year there was a big to-do around Disney's return to traditional, 2D animation with The Princess and the Frog. They hadn't done 2D in years, it was their first black princess, Disney good-luck charm Randy Newman was playing on his home field with good, old-fashioned jazz music, and it was all set in New Orleans, which felt topical with production having begun around Hurricane Katrina. And then the movie came and went with little fanfare. Yet still it got nominated for an Academy Award, essentially as a reflex.
However, that same year an animated film called Ponyo, from famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, had a limited American release and was, in a fun, quiet, extraordinary way, brilliant. It wasn't nominated at all.
The cover of the Blu-ray says that the film is "Inspired By The Classic Hans Christian Andersen Story The Little Mermaid." Indeed it is, but inspiration can lead you to some very unusual places, and going in expecting this to be like Disney's The Little Mermaid is going to disappoint. The film uses the basic structure of the story, a mermaid risking a dangerous transformation against the wishes of her father out of love for a human, and turns it into a more impressionistic riff on family dynamics, environmental concerns, and a multi-age community.
If you haven't seen a Hayao Miyazaki film yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. He's a true master artist who has made heartfelt, moving, traditionally animated movies for decades now. His films range from very light, breezy fare for younger audiences like Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro to more thoughtful, mature movies like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Most of his films have a conservationist undercurrent and center around young characters, almost always female, finding their place in an adult world that is mysterious, sometimes dangerous, and always full of magic.
In Ponyo the titular character is an adorable little fish creature who escapes the overly protective world of her father (voiced in the English language track by Liam Neeson) and falls in love with a little boy named Sosuke. Miyazaki has made Ponyo and Sosuke into children around eight years old, thereby transforming the romance of the original Little Mermaid story into something more innocent and emblematic less of romantic love than a social contract of care and responsibility for those around us and the world we live in.
One of Miyazaki's greatest talents is how he creates his worlds and makes them feel lived in. While most animated features want to rush to get to the big song numbers and action set pieces, some of the most interesting moments in Ponyo involve watching the newly humanized sea creature get used to moving around Sosuke's family home and the sincere elation she experiences at simple things like a quick noodle dinner.