“Her name is Ponyo. She likes to eat ham and she does magic.”
This line, spoken by 5-year-old Sosuke, effectively sums up the whimsical fable-like sensibilities of master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s latest work. Deliberately oriented toward wee ones, defiantly nonsensical in its plot turns, and espousing a Shinto view of the world (the story has no real antagonist), Ponyo is a touching and visually delightful meditation on loyalty, companionship and the wonder of the natural world.
Though it never achieves the heights of Princess Mononoke or his masterpiece, Spirited Away, this kinder, gentler take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid brims with many of Miyazaki’s fetishes, namely: dizzying dream logic, gentle humanism, and eye-popping animated action sequences.
The chaotic, stream-of-consciousness storyline follows Sosuke (voiced by Jonas), who lives by the sea with his mom (Fey) and much-absent dad (Damon). One day, he meets an overeager goldfish named Ponyo (Cyrus), who longs so deeply to be with her newfound friend that she transforms into a human.
Unfortunately, not only does her magician father (Neeson) pale at the thought of her joining the pollution-spewing human race, her defection from the undersea world upsets the cosmic order, disrupting the moon’s orbit, triggering a tsunami that submerges Sosuke’s town.
Though marginally a cry for environmental compassion and greater parental involvement, Miyazaki is too modest and idiosyncratic to beat you over the head with moralistic messages and posturing. Instead, his softhearted sensibilities quietly permeate a story that blissfully embraces the willy-nilly reasoning of a child’s imagination. While most kids will readily dive into Ponyo’s slight but untidy narrative, parents may struggle to keep up. Don’t bother; surrender to the film’s random digressions.
It helps that Ponyo is filled with breathtaking animation. Behold a thrilling car ride through a roiling storm as Ponyo skips from wave to wave in pursuit; watch the fantastical world created in the storm’s aftermath, as the two children take a boat ride through drowned streets filled with grotesque sea life.
If Miyazaki stumbles, it’s in the abrupt and overly neat resolution. Falling back on hackneyed proclamations about love’s power, he shuffles beyond the illogicality of his narrative and quickly wraps up what was an otherwise gracefully patient fantasy. It’s an unfortunate choice that bluntly breaks the spell he so painstakingly cast.
Still, given the sheer invention, earnestness, and enchantment in Ponyo, it’s petty to complain. And if my own son’s delighted reaction is any indication, the audiences Miyazaki cares about most won’t mind in the least.