Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers, one of my favorite artists, and a champion of originality. Although his movies are considered Japanese anime, viewers have a better chance of learning of Miyazaki through Disney than through more traditional anime.
Miyazaki has stressed many times his fascination with a child's point of view. Previously, he explored this idea in My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. Ponyo marks another journey into adolescence and childhood through the child's point of view. Everything seems very large, and not too complex. The world and the its ocean are big and mysterious to the two main characters, Ponyo and Sōsuke.
The story follows a humanoid fish (referred to as a "goldfish," but looking like a little human girl) named "Brünnhilde" by her father, but later named Ponyo. The goldfish swims away from her father, a caretaker of the sea, to view the world above, and soon possesses a desire to be human. She is found by a five year-old boy named Sōsuke, and they each take a quick liking to each other. Afterward, they are separated, explaining their friendship to their parents, and then brought back together again, only to truly prove their relationship in a test of love. In the midst of all this, Ponyo's parents (wizard and goddess) struggle to maintain balance in the sea as they realize their daughter's true (yet unnatural) passion to evolve from a mystical sea creature to human being in the world above.
Ponyo has a slightly different look for a Miyazaki film. The backgrounds are executed with a much softer tone, almost with pastels and water colors, as opposed to delicate realism. In keeping with the theme of water, everything visual is round and bulbous. There's hardly a straight line to be seen in the movie. The animation of the characters also seems to be a little looser than in Miyazaki's previous movies. The characters' outlines appear to be moving more than usual, giving their bodies more physical expression.
Some of the best parts of the movie, in my opinion, are those featuring ocean waves and the shapes coming from the sea. Rather than a realistic looking ocean and storm (already a complicated task), Miyazaki and his crew took what sounds like an easier and more experimental approach. This time, the exaggeration of the waves, looking like morphing bulbous blobs, is easier to understand. The waves are also a lot of fun to watch. This is the first time in a while where I was having fun watching the animation, rather than just admiring the technicality of it. The waves are dark and looming, but there's something funny and amiable about them.
A big part of the story deals with parental relationships. Sōsuke at first glance has an average relationship with his mother, but is later shown to care very deeply about her. He also shows concern for her, especially when his father (a ship captain) has a habit of working overtime. Ponyo's parents, by comparison, are more unique, as they have mystical elements. Ponyo's father, Fujimoto, is very layered: he is shown to be a stern wizard who despises humans (despite being one himself at one point) and is devoted to the well-being of the sea. Despite these traits, he truly loves and cares for his daughter and other children, and in the end, accepts Ponyo's decision. Ponyo's mother, Gran Mamare, is a looming sea goddess, with great beauty and gentle insight. The scenes with Gran Mamare are among my favorite scenes in the movie.
I can't say enough to praise the film score. Joe Hisaishi's music has been a crucial part of Miyzaki's movies since their first collaboration on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, close to 25 years ago. I found myself getting the chills at the sound of the primary theme of the score, which mostly played during scenes under the ocean and scenes involving Ponyo's mother, Gran Mamare. The music in these scenes is loud and operatic with an emphasizing choir, enough to make a full-grown adult feel small. There are also parts of the score that are reminiscent of Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," (Miyazaki has stated that part of the story and setting is inspired by Wagner's Die Walküre).
I am glad this got a theatrical release here in the U.S., thanks to Disney. I have to admit I had great concern over the English dub. What made me nervous right away was the casting of Frankie Jonas (youngest brother of the Jonas Brother) and Noah Cyrus (Miley's younger sister) and Sōsuke and Ponyo respectively. The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are big Disney stars, and here they casted their siblings, which strikes me as Hollywood nepotism. Surprisingly, these two kids do a great job: their voices are emotive and clear, and right to the heart of the young characters. Tina Fey (of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock) portrays Sōsuke's mother, Lisa, and also managed to bring heart and warmth to the character. The rest of the actors (Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Matt Damon) are all pretty good, even though a couple of them have only minimal dialog. I also have to admit, I feel a little uncertain about Liam Neeson's performance (and I say this as a Neeson admirer).
Ponyo is one of the warmest movies I have seen in a theater in quite a while (not since the Wallace and Gromit movie four years ago). The movie ends with a sense that anything can happen, but happiness and balance are now full circle. Miyazaki hasn't lost his touch, all of his movies are timeless, and Ponyo is no different. I will be remembering Ponyo for a long time.