In the films of Hayao Miyazaki, children often see things that the adults around them miss completely. It's not that Miyazaki's grown-ups have impaired vision, and it's certainly not that they're dim. It's just that they can sometimes be so caught up in the hustle and bustle of busy, everyday life that they forget how to really look.
In much the same way, moviegoers who are too caught up in looking for the latest, newest, shiniest, flashiest blockbuster or Oscar warhorse are likely to miss out on Miyazaki's cinematic miracles—movies that require a slightly different kind of viewing, moviegoing informed by patience and imagination and childlike wonder.
Ponyo is Miyazaki's latest. It's his first film since the weird and wonderful Howl's Moving Castle, and his second since the trippy fantasia Spirited Away, which won him an Academy Award. It also happens to be released in the U.S. on (roughly) the tenth anniversary of his dark, violent epic, Princess Mononoke. But this movie isn't much like any of those; it has more in common with the movies he made before he started making epics, small and magical movies like Kiki's Delivery Service and especially My Neighbor Totoro. In other words, it's not an epic or a war movie—it's a fairy tale.
Actually, it's been called Miyazaki's own Little Mermaid, though the similarities are fairly superficial (as were comparisons between Spirited Away and Alice in Wonderland). The movie does involve a young girl born in an underwater world to a powerful wizard of the sea, and she does make contact with a human being. Beyond that … well, more on that later.
The girl, in this case, is Ponyo—and technically, she starts as a fish. She's separated from her father (the Poseidan-like ocean warlock Fujimoto) and rescued by a five-year-old boy, Sosuke, who lives high on a cliff with his mother, Lisa, while his father is out at sea. He's also the heart and soul of the movie—he cares for his orphaned fish with devotion and curiosity.
In fact, his love for Ponyo leaves such an impression on her that, even after she is returned to her father, she longs to be back with Ponyo—so much so that she harnesses the magic of the sea and transforms herself into a human being, very much to Fujimoto's dismay. His daughter's decision throws the natural order out of balance, and so a series of strange, cataclysmic events submerges Sosuke's village in water and fills the seas with prehistoric marine life.
If it sounds weird, well, that's Miyazaki for you. His last few movies have all veered into trippy, esoteric fantasy, where rules of logic and linear storytelling give way to the filmmaker's own topsy-turvy laws of whimsy. So in Howl's Moving Castle, for instance—and once again in Ponyo—it can be a little tough to figure out, cognitively, what actually happens in the final act. In Howl's, I didn't much care—the film was still engrossing and quite magical. In Ponyo, it's a bit more of a problem—toward the end of the movie, Miyazaki turns his focus to larger-than-life scenarios involving rifts in the fabric of reality, cosmic tests of love and faithfulness, and ill-defined truces between supernatural beings.
It's all pretty cool, at least to look at. It's just that it strays from Miyazaki's—and Ponyo's—greatest virtues. And make no mistake: For the majority of its run time, this movie is totally captivating, precisely because the director focuses on the little (and less abstract) things.
The film's joys are numerous, and most of them are small and simple. To start with, the animation—all hand-drawn—is simply breathtaking, beautiful and impressionistic in a way that makes the artwork look, at times, like watercolor. In one scene, Miyazaki's animators capture a brutal rainstorm in a way that's more vivid and evocative than any tempestuous weather I've ever seen in a live-action movie.
And then there are the characters. Sosuke is immediately one of my favorite Miyazaki characters; he shows great love for his mother, encouraging her even when she has an argument with the boy's father. His relationship with Lisa is one of the warmest, most intimate mother-child relationships seen at the movies in a good while.
And his relationship with Ponyo is just as delightful, in large part for what it represents for Miyazaki himself. The filmmaker has long addressed environmental concerns in his movies, and sometimes—as in Castle in the Sky—he can get awfully preachy. But there's nothing didactic about Sosuke's childlike curiosity toward the ocean at his doorstep, or his intrinsic devotion toward Ponyo. His relationship to his environment—as with his relationship to his family—is one of simple responsibility and devotion.
The relationships between the characters—that's where the real magic happens. But even when Ponyo loses sight of this, it's never anything less than enthralling, and at its best, it's transportive, allowing us to see—however briefly—through the eyes of Sosuke. That's Miyazaki's true gift, and that's why this film is a gift, available to anyone willing to look for it.Discussion starters
- How would you describe Sosuke's relationship to his environment—and in particular, to Ponyo?
- How would you describe the family dynamic between Sosuke, Lisa, and Koichi? Would you say they're mostly a happy, healthy family?
- What are the virtues that make Sosuke heroic?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Ponyo is rated G. There is a scene of a rainstorm that might be frightening for the very young, and there are some passing references to a goddess, spells and incantations, and other traces of the supernatural, but as always, Miyazaki doesn't take these things too seriously; they're simply plot elements in a very fantastic story.
Photos © Disney
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