Movie Review: Ponyo

Along with Pixar, Hayao Miyazaki is one of those filmmakers whose kid’s films I look forward to (and have for 15 years). And with Pixar’s John Lasseter running Disney’s creative stuff, it’ll be nice to see his films getting a bit of a wider release.

But when Jason (the commenter) tweeted that Miyazaki’s latest movie Ponyo boring, I could relate. In my case, I’ve noticed that there’s often something slightly relaxed about the narrative structures. There’s a different pace and purpose to scenes. Oddly, I always get to the point where I can rewatch them without being bored at all. Much like Pixar, his films are so packed with artistry that there’s always something new to notice.

I was pleasantly surprised by Ponyo, however. It skews young—more like My Neighbor Totoro and less Princess Mononoke—but the presentation was constantly entertaining. The Flower liked it. The Boy was chuckling throughout the whole movie, but I wasn’t sure he would cop to having enjoyed the movie as a whole, but he had no reservations about it. (He was actually more enthusiastic than The Flower.)

The story is one of these Japanese things where there’s a whole mythology that you’re not quite privy to. Fujimoto is the guy in charge of keeping the seas in balance. We’re not sure how he got the job, but he’s made time with some sort of sea goddess, and had 500 or so pollywoggish mermaid daughters.

But he’s a single dad, basically, raising a few hundred preschooler demigods, and so it’s not surprising that one of them, Brunhilda, manages to escape the protective bubble he keeps them in. From there, she gets into trouble and then rescued by a 5-year-old, Sosuke, who keeps her in a fishbowl and calls her Ponyo.

Her father then rescues her back, and I sort of thought the movie was gonna flash-forward Splash-style to a grown-up Sosuke, but it didn’t. Ponyo escapes her confines again, this time getting into her father’s store of magic elixirs and throwing the seas into chaos.

Ponyo reminded me a lot of The Barb, really, and I was pleased to see a movie that really respected the awesome, earnest destructiveness of the kindergarten set. There was another scene where Pony is sprouting arms and legs—growing into a human through sheer force of will—and poor Fujimoto (Ponyo’s father) is trying to stuff her back into her pollywog form, to no avail.

There’s a metaphor for ya.

Anyway, the only part that got me kind of sleepy was the climax of the movie. It’s a sort of weird thing for a movie about two five-year-olds, but they’re in love, and Sosuke has to pass a test to be with Ponyo. And if he doesn’t pass the test, Ponyo gets turned into sea foam.

Harsh.

But the whole aspect of what the test is and how to pass it is sort of vague. It might be something I get on rewatching the film, or it might not even be all that important. Other than that, the movie just seemed delightful: clever and cute, with some wonderful imagery.

Miyazaki fans will note a lot of trademarks: Food plays a prominent role; there’s a magical world and a real world; the real world has its ugly side but isn’t demonized; Ponyo’s sisters are reminiscent of the tree spirits in Mononoke; and so on.

Disney has thrown a bunch of celebs in here, as is their wont. There’s a Cyrus (not Miley) and a Jonas (but I don’t know if it’s one of the brothers). Cate Blanchett is the Sea Goddess, Tina Fey is Sosuke’s Mom—didn’t really recognize them or anyone else except Liam Neeson as Ponyo’s father and Betty White as one of the old folks. They just have those kinds of voices.

It’s been four years since Miyazaki’s last feature, and I know he keeps threatening to retire. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but Ponyo wouldn’t be a bad one to go out on.

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