Ponyo may not be the greatest Hayao Miyazaki film of all time, but this is very possibly the best film for kids the director has delivered. Many children’s films in America try to rope in parental appreciation as well by including more risqué jokes that will go over their children’s heads (I’m looking at you and your ilk, Shrek). This film keeps the humor sweet and simple, but crafted well enough that children and adults will enjoy it alike. Just look at the scene where five-year-old Sosuke and his mother communicate with his dad, a ship captain, via morse code and lanterns across the water, culminating in a short spousal argument blinked back and forth. Who can’t find some amusement in that?
While Ponyo lacks the epic scope of his most recent efforts Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki successfully adds some of the weight of those films to his formula for charming, deceptively simple children’s movies such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and the seminal My Neighbor Totoro. Whereas those two films focused primarily on the familial and social interactions of their young protagonists, this film gives equal weight to the conflict of man versus nature, as well as giving more focus to the adult relationships in the film. Miyazaki’s films have long been known for their pro-environment themes, which are never subtle but are rarely heavy-handed, more of just matter-of-fact, and it’s nice to see him include it in this film by showing how pollution contributes to throwing nature out-of-balance (the moon is almost crashing into the Earth). In fact, this balance wouldn’t be anywhere near as thrown off as it gets in the film if it weren’t for the magical goldfish Ponyo getting tossed into a glass jar by a fishing net, which then washes ashore, allowing Sosuke to find her and subsequently introduce her to the world of humans. The environmental message is simple enough for anyone to understand (pollution is bad and can destroy the world by throwing nature out of whack), but it never proselytizes, which would be to the loss of the charming story.
Another pleasant thematic change in this film as compared to his previous films for kids is the inclusion of the father who can’t bear to let his daughter ago. Ponyo’s father is at first adamantly against her becoming part of the human world, but upon seeing the joy it has brought her and at the behest of her mother he comes to understand that it’s not so bad to let his daughter go live her life the way which makes her happiest. Of course, that message might not be as obvious to the younger kids in the audience, but it’s a nice showcase of the difficulties of maturation that can at least bolster the notion that a child growing up is inevitable and okay on both sides of the generational gap.
Visually you can’t really ask for more out of an animated film than what Miyazaki brings to the plate in Ponyo. Whereas the foreground is more or less in his traditional style, the backgrounds have been rendered to look as though they were fashioned with crayon, colored pencil, and pastel. And considering this film was done in two dimensions by hand, they very well could have been crafted with these media. Even with the distinct smoothness of the foreground up against the softer impressionism in back, never do the two seem at odds with each other, but somehow seem to belong as parts of the same whole. By far this film is one of the best arguments to come out in the past few years to keep 2D animation alive. Disney may be going back to 2Danimation with The Princess and the Frog, but there really seems like there’s no way they could bring the level of brilliance and artistry that Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli present here, so I’m glad to have seen such a great argument here for other artists not to abandon it.
While the visuals definitely take the cake as the best part ofthis film all around, the soundtrack isn’t too shabby either. Granted, since I saw the American release I didn’t get to hear the original Japanese tracks, but Miyazaki has a sweet deal cut with Disney so the American dub for his films is never lacking. For instance, this film has Liam Neeson asPonyo’s father, as well as Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Sosuke’s parents, to name a few. And yeah, Disney did rope in MileyCyrus’s little sister Noah to voice Ponyo, and the youngest Jonas sibling, Frankie, to voice Sosuke, but they’re kids voicing kids and their director got them to do the job just fine. Plus, with John Lasseter as an executive producer and Skywalker Sound working on the American release, it’s no wonder the American soundtrack is just fine. As for the music, the score is highly European in style and didn’t seem evocative of anything Japanese. In fact, some portions reminded me of Wagner’s works, which doesn’t surprise me at all since after a little internet sleuthing I turned up that the film was in part inspired by Wagner’s Die Walküre (for example, Ponyo was named Brünnhilde until Sosuke renamed her).
I would definitely recommend this film to people of all ages and walks of life, unless of course you absolutely can’t stand animation or movies without sex, drugs, and/or violence. But for everyone else, this is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt, and dazzling films to hit cinemas in a while, and it would be a shame to pass it up. And if you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you can always just pretend this is a sequel to Taken since his daughter goes missing in this one as well.