Ponyo (review)

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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.

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Mon, Aug 24, 2009 1:51pm

Wait… you’re reviewing the dubbed version? Why on earth would you do that, especially for a Miyazaki film!? MaryAnn, this is very upsetting.

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 2:11pm

What do you think of the Huffington Post’s comparison of Ponyo to the little girl in Orphan?


Mon, Aug 24, 2009 2:13pm

Now, now. Don’t be a subtitle snob Newbs. She’s reviewing the movie for people who are deciding whether or not to go to the theater. Sure, the subbed versions are almost always better, but I’ve yet to see a Miyazaki dub that made me cringe in the way that truly horrible dubs can… Believe It! (actually quite a lot of people think the French dub of Porco Rosso is better than the original).

I agree 100% with this review (minor typo, you forgot the second “don’t” in the final paragraph). I’m a Miyazaki nut, and yet as I watched this, I felt as though he had not only run out of things to say, but worse still had run out of interesting ways to say them. It’s partly because this is aimed at very small kids, but mainly because it’s just not a very good movie. It feels like a rough draft that’s missing all the transitions or the work of a magician who is trying to recapture the magic of Totoro, but has forgetten the words to the spell.

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 2:15pm

minor typo, *forgotten*

Mike Brady
Mike Brady
Mon, Aug 24, 2009 3:54pm

I took my four-year old daughter to see this and she absolutely loved it. She sat through the whole thing, paid attention and was asking questions – and this was at an 8:30 showing (read: late for her). There are few movies that capture her attention like that, so Ponyo will hold a special place in my heart.

I can’t disagree on the whole with the “Wait for DVD” recommendation. I’ll humbly add the footnote, though, that if you have a young child that’s captivated by the commercials for this film then an evening with Ponyo is one well-spent. I enjoyed myself, and agree that Lisa was a very refreshing character. Say what you will about dubbing versus subtitles, but I found Tina Fey to have been an excellent casting decision; she really brought a lot to the part. I hope to hear more voice work from her in the future.

I’ve had to sit through a lot of children’s drivel (to wit: we have also recently watched “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”), so when a movie like “Ponyo” comes along it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 7:53pm

Although I loved the film I understand her point as there is not a strong story-line or drama or real tension as tehy were in Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke or even Totoro.

But I do not think the film aimed is only to children. Still being a history envolving a child human and a mythical creature, the movie plays in that universe pretty well as always.

Maybe there is not magic as in the other films because Sosuke is willing to accept Ponyo as real and as a friend from the very beginning. In the other films, I think, “magic” was shown as part of the development of the history. We went along the characters in accepting that universe.

But I’m talking too much… hehehe. I loved the beauty of this film

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 1:37am

Hm, I wasn’t interested in this the moment I heard the story was based off The Little Mermaid and I guess my hunch was right. I find that Miyazaki does much better work when the story is his own (Mononoke, Spirited Away, etc) and not drawn from a book or such (Howl, etc. I liked it, but it wasn’t “magical” like his other work).

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 10:33am

So far, this review sums up my feelings more closely than the others I have seen. I am a Miyazaki fan, hands down, and still am.

The animation encapsulated me; however, the story lacked the magic he usually overwhelms me with. There is a lot of build up regarding what will happen if they are to fall in love, if they are to pass this “test of love”. Where was the test? Chihiro certainly had her share of tests in Spirited Away and they were a lot more than a magic woman asking “do you love haku?”.

I was on the ride for the majority of the film, but toward the end I was feelings quite indifferent.

Still, it is well worth seeing, especially if you are a fan. I love seeing how Miyazaki builds and subtracts from ideas he has used before, but he lacked story elements this time. And I could have done without the overwhelmingly BAD disney song at the end.

Sat, Aug 29, 2009 1:07pm

There is a visual grandeur that appropriately matches the emotional landscape of the characters. In his last three films, Miyazaki used the assistance of computers, which was appropriate in creating a sharper-edged look and sense of speed for those more action oriented films. Miyazaki has abandoned all technology and it suits the film fine. There is a rustic, genuine quality to the film. The pastel colors of the film, which are truly magnificent, are able to blend into one another. There is a painterly quality to the animation that is a wonder to behold. The combinations of pinks and blues open new passageways into the mind’s imagination. Miyazaki has crafted yet another masterpiece that is both visually beautiful and emotionally profound, and all I can think to say is…Jason loves Ponyo!

Read my full review at http://cfilmc.com/ponyo/

Sat, Aug 29, 2009 3:04pm

Miyazaki’s son summed up his thoughts on Ponyo the best: people enjoy movies mainly through feeling or logic and those who gravitate to the former would enjoy Ponyo.

Ponyo had some cringe worthy dialogue and its simple plot often lost focus, but its gorgeous visuals, Hisaishi’s wonderful score and the amazing mood it created made up for its weaknesses. Without a doubt it’s Miyazaki’s weakest film after Howl’s, but I still enjoyed it enough to watch it a second time.

I can understand if people failed to enjoy it based on issues with plot and pacing, but I wouldn’t write the movie off as a failure as its unique and captivating visuals still has its appeal to those who are more receptive to that sort of thing (Ebert for example, gave the film 4 stars).

On a side note though, its both disappointing and surprising how the quality of Miyazaki’s screenplay has deteriorated of late. Spirited Away had some flaws as well, but the strength of its characters overshadowed those issues. Since Howl’s, his movies have become a lot more erratic – though he’s still a great director.

Mon, Sep 07, 2009 3:55pm

Wait… you’re reviewing the dubbed version? Why on earth would you do that, especially for a Miyazaki film!? MaryAnn, this is very upsetting.

It’s the only version of the movie I had access to.

October Mermaid
October Mermaid
Fri, Sep 18, 2009 1:55am

I’d guess that the shortness of the film, coupled with its more child-oriented themes and settings accounted for your disappointment in it. I was a bit let down, too, but I still had a good time. The thing about Miyazaki, I guess, is that some of his works just REALLY click and some don’t, and it depends on the person. For example, the ones I love, I REALLY love, like Whisper of the Heart.

Then there are ones like Spirited Away or Nausicaa that I definitely like, but I never really got. You say they cohered and overcame the sum of their parts and I can certainly understand how that happened, but I don’t feel it, myself.

And I guess Miyazaki sets the bar so high that not even he can clear it every time.

Tue, Nov 10, 2009 8:44am

ALL animation is dubbed! Even the original! Why can’t people understand that?

Unless the script has been changed in translation, or the voice acting is terrible, you should watch the version that you are most comfortable watching.

Cartoon animals cannot really talk. Nor can cartoon people. They don’t speak English, or Japanese. All animation is dubbed. Repeat after me, all animation is dubbed.