Many critics, who know Hayao Miyazaki is a world-class entertainer and that American audiences are still clueing into that fact, seem determined to frame Ponyo as the filmmaker’s latest masterpiece. The same set piece or two—a raucous and exciting storm with sea waves undulating like giants serpents, or a picturesque flooded town hosting an assortment of prehistoric marine life—are cited, attention is given to the refreshing hand-drawn aesthetic, and excuses are made for the film’s childlike simplicity. But unlike Miyazaki’s previous masterpiece for grade school kids, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), his new film (which skews even younger) simply lacks a compelling emotional arc. Culled from themes found in The Little Mermaid (Miyazaki’s affection for Western children’s literature is renowned), it often feels underdeveloped and random. Characters are visual types rather than personalities (some are human, some are spirit, and some are confusingly perched in between), their relationships are largely static, and aside from the scenes mentioned above, much of the seaside setting is far more ordinary than the bulk of Miyazaki’s previous oeuvre. At its best, this is a master working in a minor key; at its worst, it feels like a project in search of structure and conviction.
Sosuke is a five-year-old boy (modeled after Miyazaki’s own son at that age) living with his mother, a lighthouse keeper named Lisa (whose absent, sea captain husband echoes Miyazaki’s oft-cited workaholic confessions) employed at a nearby nursing home. One day, Sosuke discovers a magical goldfish washed up on shore named Ponyo, and soon a bond of love is formed between them. Ponyo escapes from her father, an enigmatic aquatic sorcerer, and upsets the order of the universe by becoming human, which creates a tsunami that engulfs the town and sends Sosuke and Ponyo in search of Lisa.
Miyazaki gets the energy and charm of the children right, making their steamy ramen meal on a dark and stormy night and their rambunctious slapstick amusing for a while, but it begins to wears thin once it becomes clear that he has no intention of elaborating their personas beyond clumsy cuteness. They might be a tribute to the physical exuberance of youth, but they're about as captivating as a typical babysitting session. Similarly, the residents of the nursing home might have served as a wizened Greek chorus of sorts, but so little effort is made to incorporate them into the story that they mostly seem like a distraction.
There are some interesting contradictions and parallels in the film that, similarly, are merely touched upon: Sosuke lives with his mother but idolizes his father, Ponyo lives with her father but idolizes her mother (an enormous sea goddess); Ponyo’s father curses humanity but appears in human form; the children’s love propel the narrative but the adults are largely isolated from romance; the line separating life above and below the water becomes increasingly blurred. But the potential for these frictions seems squandered, only interesting in retrospect, like conceptual impulses never fully articulated.
Miyazaki’s production methods are more improvisational than many animation directors, who spend long periods developing films in shot-by-shot detail before committing pen to paper or pixel, and in most cases his intuition has served him well. But Ponyo’s various elements—many of which seem like hand-me-downs from earlier, more elaborately constructed Miyazaki worlds—never dramatically cohere, and the childlike viewpoint often seems restrictive rather than empowering. Surely the inventor of the cat bus can envision a transport more enticing than a magically enlarged plastic boat? The second half of the film is especially slow going, as the children float around town and episodically interact with passersby and Ponyo’s fluctuating powers, the first Miyazaki film in a long while that seems like it’s simply marking time.