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"Ponyo" Swims With the Best

by on August 18, 2009

So, with Ponyo, we have another Hayao Miyazaki movie. I think we all know what that means: Lots of cute. An almost overwhelming amount of cute. Vague environmental overtones. Mind-blowingly good animation. A story that may or may not get lost amidst all the other stuff. In the case of Ponyo we get all of that and a plot that may or may not make sense to you depending on how critically you think about it.

This is a Miyazaki movie. The answer to 'What's it about?' is 'Who cares?'We meet our first main character, Ponyo, deep deep deep under the sea as she frolics around her dad’s submarine. Ponyo is a gold fish, though I can’t say I know of any salt water goldfish myself, with a human face and several thousand less evolved siblings. At least I think they’re siblings. This is one of the many, many things you kind of have to accept in the movie. She slides her way up to the shore line through the fouled waters of a nameless Japanese harbor city, where she’s picked up by a young boy named Sosuke after she gets stuck in a jar. Through the day they bond as Sosuke’s mother, Lisa, tries to live her life while her husband is out to sea on a ship. Once Ponyo learns how to speak a little, she is taken back by her father’s water blob minions.

You see, her father is a wizard of some kind doing … Well, something involving ocean spirits and cleansing the planet of all the human-made garbage, and maybe of humans themselves, too. It’s never really clear what’s going on. Since she spoke, Ponyo wills herself into a human girl, setting off a chain reaction that unleashes all of the spirits her father had been collecting and flooding much of the world as she tries to make her way back to Sosuke. Ponyo, as it turns out, is a very magical … thing. Not only can she turn herself from a fish-thing into a human, she can use her power to help people in her own “makes sense to a five-year-old” way.

Much of the film could probably be explained by “makes sense to a five-year-old.” I don’t mean that to be a bad thing, but it’s just that Ponyo is not a particularly complex movie. Studio Ghibli and Pixar are compared quite often, and rightly so given the ties between them and the overall excellence of both studio’s productions over the years. That said, Pixar has never produced a movie as simple as Ponyo. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not particularly deep. It’s possible a little bit got lost in the translation, but I don’t think so. Ponyo is very much not Princess Mononoke. Everyone is won over very quickly by Ponyo’s totally infectious charms and everything that should be a mortal danger, like a flood overwhelming the town, carries no particular weight. To a large extent the movie “happens” and feels a bit lacking in emotional weight and depth.

Who's bright idea was this? Get it?Now to be fair, Ponyo is still a wonderful film crammed as full of life an energy as anything you will see this year. The animation is absolutely wondrous. The backdrops have a very water color picture quality to them, and the sea creatures that make up much of what the viewer sees are incredibly lifelike in movement and design, and they just fill every inch of the screen. The more the water fills the screen the better things get right up to the end. The vocal work is also exceptional overall, per usual for a Disney film. I do feel the need to call Disney out a bit for stunt casting their two newest money machines in the lead roles, Frankie Jonas as Sosuke and Noah Cyrus as Ponyo, but neither one embarrasses him- or herself amongst the other talent crowding the screen, including Liam Nesson as Ponyo’s father, Matt Damon as Sosuke’s father, Tina Fey as Sosuke’s mother, Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s mother, and Cloris Leachman and Betty White as some of the residents of the senior center that Lisa works at.

At the end of the long road, Ponyo is exceptionally enjoyable and very highly recommended. I just hope all the kids who are going to see it because a Jonas brother and Miley’s little sister in it come away with an appreciation for what’s on the screen, not just who’s behind the mic.

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