Film Review: “Ponyo”

About a year ago, I started hearing buzz about a Japanese animated film called Ponyo. I knew it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, known in the U.S. for, among other things, “Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Spirited Away”, and “Princess Mononoke”. My first exposure to Miyazaki was with “Mononoke”, and while I enjoyed the animation and the story, the ending threw me a bit. Then, later, when I saw “Spirited Away”, I felt the same — mostly starting when the main character took the train away from where she was working.

But then I heard people saying that the first 20 minutes or so of “Ponyo” made no sense, and were just beautifully-drawn sea scenes. So I mentally shelved it and figured I’d come back to it at some point.

Enter Netflix, which I just subscribed to. Netflix, which had “Ponyo” in HD.

Well, one Saturday night, my daughter wanted to watch a movie, so I suggested “Ponyo” — it was age-appropriate, and contained nothing more objectionable than occasional scary images (according to what I read before showing it to her). We had dinner, settled in, and began to watch.

She was hooked. Completely captivated. And so was I.

“Ponyo” is a riff on the classic “Little Mermaid” tale of the fish who wants to be human. However, in this story, the fish who wants to be human is the half-human-half-fish daughter of a human sorcerer and the goddess of mercy. While exploring the sea near a Japanese harbor town, she is caught up in a net that is dredging the sea bottom, cleaning up trash, and eventually washes up in the shallows near the home of five-year-old Sosuke. Sosuke saves her from the glass bottle that’s got her trapped, and there he names her Ponyo (her given name is Brunhilde). Later, Sosuke takes Ponyo to his school, shows her to his friends and the old women next door (his school is beside a Senior Center, where his mother works), and eventually loses her to the sea when her father uses magic to retrieve her.

And then it gets weird. Because, you see, Ponyo has fallen in love with Sosuke and will do anything to be with him, including defying her father, stealing his magic elixirs, and transforming into a human girl. In doing so, she creates a massive storm which nearly washes Sosuke’s mother’s car off the road and ends up submerging the entire town in what is some of the coolest artwork I’ve seen in anime lately.

Because “Ponyo” is directed at children, you know the ending will be happy. But there’s plenty of adventure to be had, lots of humor — once Ponyo gets to Sosuke’s house, there’s several moments my daughter and I both LOL’d at — and and ending that, while somewhat neatly-wrapped-up (what about all those flooded houses and shops?), is still satisfying.

The artwork in “Ponyo” is beautiful, as befits a Miyazaki film, and you really feel like you’re in that harbor town with Sosuke. The mother, Lisa, is somewhat cliched (think Misato Katsuragi at her most stressed-out), but she’s a good character nonetheless. The seniors with whom she works provide plenty of comic relief, as does some of what Ponyo’s father gets up to. And then, when the town is submerged, the adventure Sosuke and Ponyo go on is quite a cool sequence.

Because the film was made by a Japanese studio and written by a Japanese writer, there are some things the characters do that don’t track. It’s hard to explain to my four-year-old why Sosuke’s mother is leaving him alone for the night — from what I know of Japanese culture, kids are a bit more self-sufficient than American kids of the same age, but still, Sosuke is only five — and the food they eat is very different from what she has in the morning. I mean, I’ve never given my daughter a ham sandwich for breakfast*. She also didn’t understand the supermarket, and I don’t think she comprehended that the reason none of the letters looked familiar was because it was another language. But these are small things.

The voice acting was probably the weakest part of the film, at least for me. Tina Fey didn’t do a very good job as Lisa, and the girl who played Ponyo (the youngest Cyrus sister) had a very annoying voice. Of course, that was part of her character, but still… annoying. The youngest Jonas brother played Sosuke, and he was all right. Liam Neeson played Ponyo’s father, and while he sounded mostly like a put-upon Irish father, that really wasn’t right for the role — despite the character’s appearance. The best voice acting by far was done by the women who played the ladies at the senior center — Betty White and Lily Tomlin.

If you’re a Miyazaki completist, or you want to see a really beautifully-drawn film, I’d say you should watch “Ponyo”. Your younger kids will like it, and older ones will sit through it without too much difficulty. At least, the first time. I liked it for the artwork, and for its humor. But overall, I don’t think it was as strong as some of Miyazaki’s other films, despite the strength of Sosuke’s character and the way he sees the world he lives in. In some ways the hyperactivity of Ponyo’s character and viewpoint actually detract from the story as a whole, and it’s at its best when Sosuke is the center of attention. Still, I’d say it deserves most of the praise it’s received, despite my problems with it.

If you’re a kid, it probably gets four stars (out of four). My daughter certainly considers it her new favorite, and loves to sing the theme song. But for adult audiences, I’d consider it a three-star film.

* Actually, we keep kosher, so she’ll never have one anyway, but it’s the principle of the thing.