Fish Out of Water
Oh dear. What’s happened to Hayao Miyazaki, the master of beautiful, poignant, deeply weird and profoundly philosophical Japanese animation? Has he lost his touch? Is the magic gone?
Or did I lose something essential for enjoying Miyazaki between, oh, 2001’s Spirited Away — one of the most wonderful movies I’ve ever seen — and Ponyo? But no, I couldn’t get too excited about 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, either… And I got very excited indeed about 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro — another of the most wonderful movies I’ve ever seen — and I only saw that for the first time after I saw Howl.
So it’s Miyazaki then. Not me. Though I’m not sure that makes me feel any better.
Known as Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) in Japan, where it was a huge hit, Ponyo bears, on the surface, all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki classic. The hand-drawn animation is lovely and expressive in a deliciously off-kilter way that should be creepy and yet always feels thrilling, cozy, and comfortable. The story combines the special, innocent wisdom of children with an appreciation for the natural world so as to suggest that caring for nature and the planet is an urge we’re born with, one that gets submerged — and shouldn’t — as we grow up. And yet it never coheres into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, as Miyazaki’s true classics have done.
Very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid” — Miyazaki wrote the script as well as directed — this is the tale of a little goldfish who wants to be human because she’s fallen in love with a little human boy, Sosuke (the voice of Frankie Jonas), who dubs her Ponyo (the voice of Noah Lindsey Cyrus). Complicating factors enter via her father, Fujimoto (the voice of Liam Neeson: Taken, Seraphim Falls), a sort of undersea wizard who rails against the destruction of the oceans the humans are wreaking (he was once human too, though we never learn how he came to his wizardry). Sosuke’s mother, Lisa (the voice of Tina Fey: Baby Mama), is surprisingly understanding, and, in fact, one of the most refreshing things about the film — and, indeed, about most of Miyazaki’s work — is the easy acceptance of the supernatural: no story time is wasted trying to convince pointlessly skeptical characters to accept the evidence of their eyes. Wonders are readily acknowledged, and the story moves on from there.
There are many very lovely small moments here, from Ponyo’s discovery of the deliciousness of noodles to the beautiful aplomb with which Miyazaki and his animators depict the utter exhaustion of small children fast asleep after a long day of play. And there are startling moments of disturbing darkness, some of which may not be intended — Lisa is a shockingly reckless driver, even with her five-year-old son in the car — and some of which are certainly meant to upset us: the viciousness and rapaciousness of the sea outside Sosuke’s home after Ponyo’s defection from the ocean is terrifying.
But I found myself not caring, in the end, whether Ponyo and Sosuke would end up together, or whether her wizard father would see them separated forever. Could be the film is simply too simple, aimed as it is at audiences Sosuke’s age, and not mine. I don’t find myself haunted by this Miyazaki world as others have done — I don’t find myself wondering what’s lurking in that tidepool in the same way that I wondered what was lurking in those shadows after Spirited Away, or what was lurking in those woods after My Neighbor Totoro. By the time Ponyo’s goddess mother, Gran Mamare (the voice of Cate Blanchett: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), shows up to offer her daughter — and her daughter’s wizard father — her advice on what needs to be done to rectify what has turned into a bad situation, I was barely even feeling the magic at all.