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Review: "Ponyo" (Miyazaki, Japan)

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.

I would imagine if there was a way to extract the most often used word from the hundreds of reviews of Ponyo; that word would be magical. And for good reason. Ponyo, while not perfect, is a beautiful film, and yes, magical.
Nice review, Doug. It mollifies my choice not to go see the film when I had the opportunity. I had done so much research preparing for a potential interview with Miyazaki that never came through that—by the time the film arrived—I felt I had already seen it and sensed my reaction would be very much like yours. Sometimes it’s better to imagine the film a master will make than to see the film. Notwithstanding, I was truly intrigued by Miyazaki’s West Coast promotional tour. If only this level of enthusiasm extended into the American hinterlands, then the necessity for an anemic voiceover might not have been necessary and audiences would not have to be subjected to one more lesson in how marketing is not always the friend of magic. I wrote up Miyazaki’s visit to the UC Berkeley campus here and my transcript of his onstage conversation with Roland Kelts went up at the GhibliWorld website.
I try not to criticize unnecessarily but the reviews that Ponyo is receiving, in my opinion, are not merited. This film, like his other films, are very convoluted. Nor is he an outsider as he is being labeled. His films are distributed by Disney and feature every known actor in Hollywood. What outsider dreams of having his masterpiece voiced by an unknown Jonas brother and Miley Cyrus’ kid sister? For independent animation, my vote goes to Persepolis.
I think this piece and some of the comments have identified a number of issues with the film, but I do think that the general criticial consensus, as easy as it is, to label the film as “magical” is important to note, even if it’s not great criticism. Why? Well, because how often does one hear films described like this in America any more? Magic implies imagination, something sorely lacking from American films, be they fantasy spectaculars like Transformers 2 or more down to earth comedies like Funny People, films that lack any sense of expansion of thought, of ideas, of creativity, and of aesthetics. In a way, I welcome the more sedate setting of Ponyo, the small down, the lonely, single characters, the old folks home (all of which reminded me of Isao Takahata’s work for Ghibli), as it lets the “magic” shine all the more. “Improvisational” is right, the film is practically a freestyle.
Thanks, Daniel. It is important to note the use of the label “magical”. It isn’t one of the throwaway adjectives we apply to films. It is used very rarely, and I personally would not apply it to many films outside of Miyazaki’s work.
Right on Adam! What did you think of the film?
I agree with Doug’s review. When we watched Ponyo (in the original Japanese with English subtitles) it seemed to fall far short of many of Miyazaki’s other films. It’s not to say that the film wasn’t enjoyable, cute, or funny. It just didn’t have the same interior landscape in terms of character and as, say, “Howl’s Moving Castle” or “Spirited Away” nor were the sets as developed. Great review!
Great review. Yes you are right that although this seems a far simpler film from Miyazaki compared with his other masterworks like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, however, the inherent beauty of Ponyo widens one’s vision of compassion, sacrifice and enduring love. In the end, I think I fell in love with this wonderful film.
Just re-watched this, and I do think it is one of his “masterpieces”!

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