Ponyo is the newest film by prolific filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant visionary of such animated masterpieces as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, and Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro. Four years after his last film, Howl's Moving Castle (considered widely to be one of his most unusual films), Miyazaki takes us back to the concept of play among adult horrors.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which is the literal title of the film translated from Japanese to English, is about a small fish-like creature named Ponyo who dreams of being human. Animation fans will obviously see the similarity between this premise and The Little Mermaid, but Ponyo is not 16 years old like Ariel; she is only 5 years old. Given that she is this young in human years might actually be more telling in certain lifetimes of fish, Ponyo however has got a lot to learn when it comes to the surface world. She is fiercely protected by Fujimoto, a bizarre wizard who hides from the rest of mankind in a submarine that is probably both magical and quite advanced in technology. As she evades her apparent father's formless creatures, she is literally hooked by the likes of a young boy named Sosuke who discovers her appetite for human things including fresh water, sliced ham, and human boys (not so much for human girls as she tends to give them the cold shoulder). Ponyo's defection to the city by the sea is not without its consequences though. The sea starts to get very angry and causes destructive weather, horrific tsunamis, and flooding of homes. These events in turn transform Ponyo into a human after drinking the blood of Sosuke in one instance. The disasters send the adult characters, especially Sosuke's mother, Lisa, into action to help the other cliff residents as Ponyo and Sosuke stay behind to conduct their own plan. The character of Lisa is interesting because she is constantly on edge over a husband who is never around when he needs to be, she helps run a retirement home filled with imaginative old ladies (and one total curmudgeon of course), and yet at the same time she does a tireless job raising Sosuke. In classic kids' movie sense, the kids see all of this as an adventure whereas the adults see it as unspeakable horror. The most unusual part of this story is when we realize Fujimoto had an almost mythological/Beowulf relationship to an ocean goddess who gave birth to Ponyo, and she enters the scene when things become desperate for the survival of the cliff community and the ocean itself. Apparently, this story might be modified quite a bit in the English version (shortened now to just "Ponyo") coming out this summer.
This reviewer had the fortunate luck of seeing this film online from an illegal taping of a screen somewhere in Japan. Subtitles were thankfully added and the viewing of the film in this matter was adequate, but this is not a review over the video quality, nor is this a morality question of the taping. This is a simple critiquing of this very beautiful 2008 movie. If it were not available online, it probably would have ended up on a 2009 list of mine later. Of course, it almost goes without saying that the hand-drawn animation is utterly fantastic. The scope, the depth, and the perfectionism of every conceivable detail is monumental, but this is not a surprise since the artistry of Miyazaki's animators at Studio Ghibli is always top notch. The film, of course, will not be for everyone since some of its mythos is obviously derived from Japanese culture, but the experience alone should be fun, especially for kids.