“Ponyo loves Sosuke! I will be a human, too!”
Ponyo “is a movie for five-year-olds”. There’s nothing derogatory about that. It was no masked insult when Hayao Miyazaki, the film’s director, uttered it. In the span of his impressive career with Studio Ghibli, he has helmed a number of projects from the dystopian Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to the adventurous Castle in the Sky, the film of childhood memories My Neighbor Totoro, the coming of age tale in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the action-flick Porco Rosso, the frightening epic Princess Mononoke, the supernatural and award-winning Spirited Away, and the magical romance Howl’s Moving Castle. And while many of these films are tauted as among the best of any family films you could find, where are the movies for very little children?
Totoro perhaps, yes, but in the case of Ponyo (originally Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), Miyazaki wanted to make something specifically for very young children. “A movie for five-year-olds”. Hearing him say that made the whole idea of this movie come together for me.
The trend in Hayao Miyazaki’s films has always been toward a vignette-style, one might dare say aimless kind of narrative. I suggest that the seeds of that took hold in Spirited Away and came to fruition in Howl’s Moving Castle, but here in Ponyo there is a sense of this kind of plot which discovers itself as it happens, as if it doesn’t truly know where it’s going. Once you reach the end of Ponyo you may think to yourself thoughts like “What was that even about?” or you may be plagued by endless questions such as “Why was the moon getting closer? Why did Brunhilde open the secret door? Why Sosuke? Why did she want to escape? Why did Fujimoto have a change of heart? How many people died after the tsunami?” And so on.
But if we remember, again, that this was a film made for very young children then it can be forgiven its lack of depth (pun) and we can just waive (pun) our thirst (pun) for deeper (pun) thematic narrative. Don’t approach this film thinking of it on the same level as Mononoke or Nausicaä with their powerful messages. I don’t think that’s really this movie’s goal.
Conversely, there’s no reason to dismiss it as “low art”. Ponyo is indeed a work of art in its own right. Simplistic in its storytelling and visuals that range from incredibly complex to minimalistic, this is a film for children which reveals the true hearts of children and their loving impact on the hard world of adults.
Almost all of Miyazaki’s films have children as main characters (Satsuki, Mei, Sheeta, Pazu, Kiki, Chihiro). If not children, then young adults and teens. Such people must be fascinating to Miyazaki’s mind. He captures the innocence and purity, the uncontaminated, raw honesty of children. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. In Ponyo, Miyazaki shows children as they are: born without hate and prejudice, having not yet learned them. They see the world as adults do not for they have forgotten how. For children, even the simplest things are magical and wondrous.
This film introduces us to Sosuke, a little boy living on a hillside house, and Ponyo, a little goldfish that dreams of being part of his world. Ah yes, so the film was advertised as telling the tale of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Undoubtedly you’re thinking of the 1989 Disney film. It’s so ingrained in our culture you can’t help it. Yet again, be warned of approaching Ponyo with preconceived notions.
This is no adaptation of The Little Mermaid, and Miyazaki has expressed that he took inspiration from that story but Ponyo doesn’t share its plot or its characters. In Disney’s adaptation, the mermaid is an over-privileged princess who yearns for the land because she falls in love with a handsome prince and thus she sells her voice to the Sea Witch in exchange for limited humanity. In Ghibli’s loose adaptation, Brunhilde is a creature of magic who escapes what looks like imprisonment under an inept and watchful father to go to land for some reason where she is saved by a little boy and becomes attached to him.
So sorry, Ariel, this movie is vastly different from the bright song-and-dance of the Disney movie.
Ponyo begins under the teeming sea with a magical man on a submersible named Fujimoto. One of his many daughters, Brunhilde, escapes from him and floats up to the surface on the back of a jellyfish, where the first thing she encounters is a trawler stirring up pollution and trash on the muddy floor of the harbor. She’s caught up in the net and gets stuck in a jar, then washes ashore where a five-year-old boy named Sosuke is playing. He breaks open the jar, saving Brunhilde. She licks the blood from his finger which he cut breaking open the glass jar.
Sosuke names Brunhilde “Ponyo” (a Japanese onomatopoeia, thinking she’s a goldfish) and wants to keep her but Fujimoto is desperately after her and pursues the children with the power of the waves. More is at stake than just family togetherness. Ponyo has tasted life on the surface and now she wants to become a human instead of staying a fish and she has the magic and the willpower to do it. Eventually, even the very balance of nature itself is thrown out of whack and only little Sosuke and Ponyo’s innocence can return things to the way they are meant to be.
This film is built on the two lead characters: the children. Sosuke is responsible and trustworthy but Ponyo is a wild little girl with “ruthless energy”. Though the film does move on at a less leisurely pace than earlier Miyazaki works, it is carried along by watching Sosuke and Ponyo play and work together. It’s their dynamic that keeps the film going.
While Ponyo is less like a fairy tale than we typically think of here in the West, it captures what I think is at the heart of the idea of the “fairy story”: a sense of playfulness and praise for being childlike, with the pace of a dream and a spirit of positivity, beauty and elegance in simplicity. Most fairy tales end with a moral and there is indeed one in Ponyo, though its style of storytelling throws a mist over it.
Ponyo will probably not be remembered as Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film, nor even perhaps one of his greatest, but at its heart it is a tale for kids and about kids more honestly than pretty much any other I can think of.
The 8-bit Review
“Don’t take it too seriously, just animate.” Those words by Miyazaki characterized the philosophy he took for his animators during production on Ponyo. The idea was to return to traditional animation techniques and allow those to speak for themselves, to unlock the possibilities which are unique to hand-drawn animation. This is why Ponyo’s visuals are so unique among all of the Studio Ghibli films.
At first glance, Ponyo looks unimpressive. This is why I think the trailer (and some trailers) are unhelpful. I wondered how the acclaimed animation studio could crank out something like Ponyo after crafting such intricately detailed characters, backgrounds, and settings before. Yet, the appeal of Ponyo isn’t in the recreation of realism. That’s an aesthetic for the adult eye. We’re talking about visuals children might appreciate and so the lines are simpler, the shades less deep, the light less intense, the details sparser. The backgrounds are soft and gentle, as if they’re made of pastels and crayons.
But don’t for a moment let any “simplistic visuals” fool you. The visual mastery in Ponyo is subtle. Characters are still astoundingly lifelike when doing simple things like lighting a match or driving a car, and Ponyo has all of the sense of weight, gravity and physics which Ghibli films command. Only now we are treated to their impression of water more than ever before.
Of course, subtlety is not Ponyo’s only claim to visual greatness. If you think a cursory glance at its animation leaves you “meh”, then you’ve merely to watch the opening sequence under the sea. The sheer amount of moving objects on screen at once has got to be some kind of a record as jellyfish, crustaceans, cephalopods, sea slugs, plankton, trilobites, sharks, and fish of all sorts literally swarm around Fujimoto’s ship. It is more than the eyes can take!
Miyazaki always uses Joe Hisaishi for his scores, and that’s probably because he’s a composer who understands that music must be as important as the images in a film. No wonder the man has crafted some really memorable pieces. In Ponyo, there was a deliberate design philosophy and for Hisaishi that was “simplicity”.
The recurring motif of Ponyo’s theme is inherently gentle, small and simple. Note the solo violin. Yet at the same time, the film includes vast movements of the orchestra, accompanied by the warm, vibrado-ing voice of a woman like the song of a mother for her children, like the song of Mother Sea. The lightness, the modesty of this soundtrack perfectly matches its watery setting. Though it is a smaller soundtrack than most, it is one which evokes the sea quite capably.
Really the only song I don’t like is the one which plays over the credits (the one that says “Ponyo, Ponyo, Ponyo” over and over). It’s a little too rambunctious and noisy for an otherwise beautiful and careful film, a little too much “cool-factor” for something about children so small and unassuming.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
After Sosuke rescues Ponyo, he puts her in a bucket of water and takes her with his mom to his daycare. Unbeknownst to them, Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto, is in hot pursuit, panicking that his daughter has been kidnapped. He apparently was once human and turned his back on the human world, thinking all humans are evil. Therefore, Sosuke is no savior but a captor.
Sosuke shows his new goldfish to a little girl and to some seniors at the housing his mother works at, but he soon loses Ponyo in the sea where Fujimoto summons sentient waves to attack him. Sosuke’s mother takes him home and cheers him up with ice cream.
Under the sea, Fujimoto argues with his defiant daughter. She tells him that she loves Sosuke and is now named “Ponyo”, and she wants to become human. Using her magical powers she received from tasting human blood, she grows legs and arms and takes on an amphibious form. Fujimoto hurriedly suppresses her transformation and puts her back in with her siblings. But Ponyo escapes again and during her exit she accidentally opens her father’s secret room where he was storing up magic to restore oceanic supremacy and wipe out the humans. The abundance of magic shoots up into the air, transforming Ponyo fully into a human and her siblings into gigantic fish and waves. A resulting magical tsunami surges into existence.
Sosuke and his mother rush home through the storm as the tsunami hits the shore. Sosuke sees Ponyo running on the waves toward him. When they reach their house, Ponyo appears like a frog then runs toward Sosuke and embraces him tightly as a human. Sosuke recognizes her and they’re happily reunited.
Sosuke’s mother leaves her son and Ponyo at the house to travel to the nursing home where she works, since she’s worried about the seniors, and as the children sleep, Fujimoto and Ponyo’s mother a goddess appear in the ocean outside to discuss the imbalance of the world. The moon grows closer to the earth, causing the ocean to rise, and stars are falling. Now Sosuke must pass a test of true love in order for Ponyo to remain human and the balance to be restored.
The next morning, the children wake up to discover the water has risen up to the door of Sosuke’s house. The roads are underwater so his mother cannot come home. Ponyo uses her magic on a toy boat to make it big enough for the two of them to ride it and they set off to look for Sosuke’s mom. Prehistoric fish swim through the trees and roadways beneath them underwater.
They pass other people evacuating their homes and eventually Ponyo falls asleep, which she seems to do a lot, and Sosuke drags her on with him till they come to his mothers car. She’s not there. Sosuke begins to cry but Ponyo helps him keep on going. They eventually pass through a tunnel where Ponyo faints and reverts to her amphibian and then her fish form, causing Sosuke to worry.
On the other side of the tunnel, Fujimoto appears out of the water and speaks gently to Sosuke but the boy is frightened by one of the seniors nearby who says not to trust the man. He runs away from Fujimoto but the sorcerer sends waves after him, which catch him and carry him down below where his mother and Ponyo’s mother are waiting with the other seniors.
Ponyo’s mother asks Sosuke if he can love Ponyo and of course he says yes. He says he loves “all the Ponyos” probably referring to her various forms. Ponyo is placed in a bubble and given to Sosuke to kiss on the shore to allow her to transform fully into a human at last, as the balance of nature is restored and the waters begin to recede to their rightful place.
As you can see, the narrative of Ponyo is unusual. Its climax is essentially Ponyo’s mother asking Sosuke an easy question, which resolves everything, but everything happens to be a ton of what we don’t understand. If the ocean rising is what Fujimoto originally wanted, then why did he change his mind at the end to say everything is out of balance? In several ways, asking hard questions of Ponyo causes the film to evaporate like sea foam. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s own simple messages to convey in its own way.
The first thing Ponyo sees of the human world is a boat dragging a net stirring up pollution and trash along the ocean floor. Fujimoto complains about the waste filling up the bay because of the humans. Environmentalism has its place here as a true Miyazaki film.
“Never judge others by their looks.” Characters repeat this throughout the movie and I think it plays in to the way Sosuke, and through him by example all children, see the world. Children are honest creatures and unless they’re momentarily shy, they have no problem speaking their mind. Further, children it seems are capable of loving more freely than adults are. An adult may choose not to love someone, in fact to hate someone, simply because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background, or their religion, or their hygiene, or their language, or their beauty or lack thereof, or if they’ve wronged them once. For a child, nearly all of those considerations are irrelevant.
Fujimoto, the morose, baggy-eyed adult, cares about balance but is unbalanced himself, prejudiced against humans when Sosuke is loving and caring. He says to Ponyo: “You can’t be human and magic at the same time.” He wants to destroy human life to rebalance the Earth by overflowing the land with the oceans. “Pangea” is written above the door to his secret magic room. “Pangea” refers to the supercontinent geological theory that all of Earth’s landmasses were one and thus the planet was dominated by water. But destroying all human life, that’s not much of a balance to save life by taking life. The film portrays him as an antagonist because its director is against these broad, sweeping, one-sided strokes which end life to save life. It’s hypocritical. And yet, Fujimoto is the typical Miyazaki villain: not a villain at all, but a misguided person with good intentions who thankfully sees the error of his ways before the end.
Fujimoto may have it out for all humans but he ends up entrusting his daughter to Sosuke because the boy has demonstrated the purity of the heart of a child.
One of the clearest examples of Sosuke’s kindess is when he is upset and a little afraid of Toki, the mean old woman at the senior center. When he visits, he makes her a special origami. That’s the heart of a child. I thought of Charlie Bucket on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When the poor boy rich in heart gave back the Everlasting Gobstopper to Wonka, the Candy Man said: “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
Only Sosuke seems to consistently see the magic in the world: the giant water-fish in the tsunami, the girl-face on Ponyo, while ignoring the danger of drowning, huge and prehistoric predator-fish, and the moon humongous in the sky. How appropriate that Sosuke’s house on the cliff is left above the waters after the flood, spared because of its elevation or because of the innocence of its young resident? He sees the magic because the magic of kindness lives in him.
Family Friendliness: 10/10
Ponyo is relentlessly cute and irrevocably cheerful. This is one of Miyazaki’s most kid-friendly films. There’s a massive flood and the world may be about to end and who knows how many innocents drowned in the tsunami which Ponyo inadvertently and unapologetically caused. But those concerns are beyond this film. It never feels frightening, even though there is some danger, and there is no dwelling on dramatic and sad emotion. Sure it may be a little slower paced than American kids growing up on cartoons may be used to but it’s the perfect film for young children.
This is a pretty star-studded cast, in true Disney dub fashion. Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, even Betty White? Those are big names. Blanchett and Neeson (who looks exactly like Fujimoto) are exceptionally good in their respective parts, even if they sound exactly like themselves and are therefore recognizable. I always find it funny if people complain about the recognizability of celebrities, as if the Japanese celebrities of the original voice cast wouldn’t be equally as recognizable to the Japanese audience. If it takes you out of the film, that’s too bad, but I think the first consideration is whether their performance has merit, which in this case it does. And for the record, I personally don’t think Tina Fey sounds too much like Tina Fey. Maybe because she plays a character (Sosuke’s mom) which she wouldn’t play in live-action.
Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas as Ponyo and Sosuke ended up being great casts. They are young so they sound young for the parts. They’re not adults putting on voices. They sound genuine. Jonas’ laugh especially is characteristic of a child actor performance with a lot of integrity.
An adaptation? Inspired by, loosely, is a better explanation. There’s not much of The Little Mermaid in here beyond the yearning of a fish-girl for humanity. In that sense, this is a uniquely Miyazaki movie. But what has he said in Ponyo which he hasn’t already said? Environmentalism is his biggest message of all. And I feel that even if that ends up blowing right up past your head that it wouldn’t be a total loss, as the film itself is a beauty and an endearing one at that.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The first time I saw Ponyo, I didn’t like it very much. I wondered what the point of it was and why things happened in it the way that they did. With each subsequent viewing, the film has grown on me little by little. Now having seen it a half dozen times in two languages, it’s at least a unique film to me and its presentation of childhood is charming, especially now that I have a child of my own.
It’s remarkable when an adult can emulate the wondering mind of a child like Miyazaki can, even considering his advanced age. He must be one of those remarkable people who grow up to become responsible but never grow out of being imaginative. This may not be his greatest film but perhaps it is Ponyo’s simplicity and its examination of the heart of a child which makes it special.
Aggregated Score: 7.6