Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Ponyo, called Ponyo On The Cliff in Japan, is Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid. In it Brunhilde, a little goldfish princess, sneaks away from her wizard father and encounters a five year old boy, Sosuke, who names her Ponyo. Her father recovers her, but she escapes again, stealing from his magic elixir to become a five year old girl named Ponyo, determined to live with Sosuke.
Since 1984 Miyazaki has made ten films and established himself as an animator on par with Walt Disney, his only rival being Jon Lasseter. And there are many film fans who would happily to put him ahead of either of them, so it’s not surprising that any new release would be met with both anticipation and a lot of expectations, and that these expectations can become a barrier between enjoying the film for what it is and viewing in terms of Miyazaki’s whole filmography. And taking that into consideration it’s not surprising that many viewers, myself included watched this movie and thought, ‘it’s great, I mean, it’s Miyazaki, but I really didn’t think as much of it as his other films.’
The truth is, Ponyo has some significant weaknesses. It isn’t a complex enough film to balance off the conflicts it raises. Most notably, man and the balance of nature. From the beginning we see an ocean full of pollution and garbage. Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father, rails against it and the need to restore the balance of nature, but in the end its Ponyo’s desire to be human and the use of magic that upset things, not people at all. What is that supposed to mean? The love between Ponyo and Sosuke is also a strong motivator, and an important part of restoring the balance of nature, but the love of two small children is not the same thing as the hormonally, emotionally, and socially driven package that comes with age. Sosuke loves Ponyo in all her forms. Why wouldn’t he? Was there really any reason to think he wouldn’t?
On the plus side, this is a Hayao Miyazaki film and as such it brings with it a wealth of talent and artistic vision that stands above most of his contemporaries, in either animated or live action film. The quieter scenes, such as when Ponyo and Sosuke go looking for Sosuke’s mother, are beautiful and magical; recalling the childlike dream quality of My Neighbor Totoro. There is a lot to praise in these moments. They aren’t ancillary to the story’s success, but they don’t drive it either. They make for a beautiful trip, but not always an interesting one.