Miyazaki’s universe comes alive
by Molly Templeton
PONYO: Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. English language screenplay, Melissa Mathison. Music, Joe Hisaishi. Animation, Katsuya Kondo. Starring Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett. Walt Disney, 2009. G. 100 minutes.
Ponyo is almost perfect. The latest film from Hayao Miyazaki — the genius behind Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro — is a spin on “The Little Mermaid” that transforms Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak fairy tale into a glorious story about growing up (among other things).
In a glowing underwater bubble, a wild-haired man uncorks potions and drips them into the deeps. Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) is the father of the mischievous fish-child who is slipping, unnoticed, out a window of his astonishing ship. He tends to the seas, while up above humans dump garbage into the ocean and think nothing of it. It’s a bit of that garbage that catches the fish-girl on her explorations: She squeaks through a trawler’s net but gets stuck in a bottle. And a little boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) gets her out.
Thankfully, Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) doesn’t just adore Sosuke because he’s her rescuer; she loves him because, as she sees while spending a day in his company, he’s a sweet, thoughtful, kind and responsible child. But she’s a fish, and he’s a boy, and her father wants her back in the sea where she belongs. What’s a girl to do?
Well, discover her own power, clearly. There are no witches’ spells or bargains here; Ponyo transforms herself into a girl — and in the process sends the sea into a frenzy. Ponyo, delighted, runs over the waves, which are fish, then cresting waves, then giant fish again. Her eyes are on the tiny pink car in which Sosuke and his mother, Lisa (Tina Fey), are trying to outrun the storm; our eyes are on the tiny, leaping child as she exhilarates in her freedom, her legs and everything about being a little girl discovering the world.
Ponyo is about so much that richness seeps from the film’s frames, splashing over the edges like the waves that lap at Sosuke’s doorstep. Wrapped into its straightforward story and lush backgrounds are countless themes: taking responsibility, using one’s power wisely, being aware of the world outside oneself, learning to give; learning that things have consequences. Fujimoto, not at all the villain he first appears to be, has to let his daughter grow up, whether he likes it or not; Lisa also has to trust her child.
Ponyo is glorious, and gloriously fun, and it doesn’t hurt that the entire story is the result of one impulsive little girl’s inquisitive streak. Nothing is overwrought in Miyazaki’s universe, but nothing is too sweet or cute, either. Even if true love is invoked, it’s not necessarily romantic love; it’s a bigger, broader kind, the kind the director seems to wish we all had in greater measure, be it for ourselves, our world or our most magical stories.