An earlier version of this review can be found here.

Once again, the newest Miyazaki Hayao film was accompanied by the newest announcement of the writer-director's retirement. And following the 2004 release of Howl's Moving Castle, he stuck to it for a good year; not counting a few shorts for the Ghibli Museum, he didn't do anything until late in 2005, when a trip to the seaside inspired him to write the story for a new film that would use the image of a house on a bluff high above the water.

There was a twist this time: though Miyazaki was inevitably coming back to animation, he wasn't going to make another Howl, another Spirited Away, another Princess Mononoke. Part of what kept driving the filmmaker to declare every new film in a ten-year span to be his very last, for reals this time, was that all the joy had gone out of animation for him; despite the incredible imagery he was able to create as a result of computers, he had come to feel that computer animation was incompatible with his visual style and his storytelling concerns. Which is why his new film would be fully animated by hand, with not a scrap of computer-aided imagery to be seen. Moreover, the director would be more directly involved with the animation than he had been in years: he personally animated much of the water animation in the film himself - in a story in which water is a predominant plot element.

Ultimately, Ponyo on the Cliff - just plain Ponyo on the U.S. posters and DVDs, but I'm going to err on the side of poetry - was released in the summer of 2008, and thus enjoys a position of privilege as, to date, the last film made by Miyazki, and the last film produced by Studio Ghibli (although that latter point of distinction will no longer be true by the end of summer, 2010); but in all other senses other than chronological, it is a deliberate and at times welcome throwback to a simpler period in Miyazaki's career, when he was making delicately colored, narratively undemanding children's movies - the period of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Bully for him, too, if this is what he wants to do with his career after stretching himself to such wild and gorgeous aesthetic lengths; while Ponyo is by no means one of his very best works, there's an extremely gratifying simplicity to it, in stark contrast to the busy-ness of his most recent work.

So here's the naughty little secret: it's been only a few months since Ponyo was in theatres, at which time I reviewed it - and to be completely frank, my thoughts haven't really changed much since then. The damnable shame is that the format of that review makes it almost impossible for me to reuse any of it here. I just wanted to note it for the sake of intellectual honesty.

Here we are then: Ponyo on the Cliff. A story that was supposedly inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", although the links between the two are pretty darn broad: a little girl fish becomes attached to a human and wants to be human herself. Absolutely none of the details are carried over. Instead of Andersen's tragic fairy tale, Ponyo settles on a five-year-old boy, Sosuke (Doi Hiroki), living on a bluff overlooking the ocean, on the edge of a small town. His mother, Lisa (Yamaguchi Tomoko), works at the local senior center, while his father, KΓ΄ichi (Nagashima Kazushige) captains a fishing boat, and is rarely home. Sosuke doesn't seem especially unhappy, but his life takes a major shift for the better when he finds a little goldfish stuck in a bottle in the shallows, and he names her Ponyo (Nara Yuria); she happens to be one the hundreds of daughters of Fujimoto (Tokoro JΓ΄ji), a peculiar being who used to be a human, and now lives in a submarine where he prepares a great scheme to save the oceans of the world from his former race and our polluting ways. His daughter doesn't really care about that; she just wants to have a real life, and if that means sneaking away and using a little bit of magic to take the form of a human and be Sosuke's new best friend, then so be it.

Before we get to anything else: how about that water, anyway? Because if that was Miyazaki's most personal contribution to the project, it seems worth focusing on it. And certainly, the waves and storms seen in Ponyo are quite incredible: never "realistic" in any useful sense of that word, nor necessarily beholden to any particular stylistic movement, the director-animator depicts water in a number of ways, depending upon the need of the moment.

The one absolute is that there's always a definite sense that the images are hand-drawn; and this is true of very nearly all of Ponyo. One gets the feeling that, having re-committed himself to the old-fashioned technique of animation by hand, Miyazaki wanted to do everything he could to show it off. Hence we get something like the opening sequence, a silent montage establishing Ponyo's desire to be free of her father's influence which also happens to boast a kingdom of sea creatures, all noticeably soft in line and color in a way that speaks to handicraft and not computer-aided draftsmanship and coloring. And that coupled with the sheer volume of visual information in these scenes really seems like nothing so much as tremendously well-deserved bragging.

The limitations of hand-drawn animation suit Miyazaki very well here; as the story is very little more than a children's fable, so is the look of Ponyo as cartoony as anything in the director's canon since the 1980s. Characters are designed with a minimum of detail, lacking the fine lines and texturing of some of the more famous faces in Miyazaki's films; and they are painted in relatively few colors, defined mostly by a solid-color clothes and smooth skin.

I don't say any of this a means of bashing the film, God knows: the stripped-down aesthetic is just exactly right for Miyazaki's story.

About that story, though: honestly, amongst the filmmaker's outright kids' movies, it's not as smooth and delightful as, say, My Neighbor Totoro. Miyazaki had a hard time figuring out how the end the film, and it shows, with a conclusion by fiat, essentially. This is particularly difficult to deal with, because very much unlike Totoro or Kiki, Ponyo isn't so blithely devoid of conflict. It's certainly without interpersonal conflict: the closest the film has to a villain is Fujimoto, who's not very close to a villain at all, just an over-protective father who hates pollution, and in this latter respect he's Miyazaki's stand-in. But where in Totoro, the protagonists' desire to explore the mysterious world in their backyard had no repercussions to speak of, Ponyo's wish to become a human sets off a chain of events that very nearly brings total destruction to the Earth's ecosystem. Which is itself a fine theme for Miyazaki to tackle; he does love the conflict between man and nature, and the danger of nature out of balance. That doesn't change the fact that Ponyo has an external conflict which is nothing short of apocalypse, and yet the tone is just as trifling as anything else he's made. Perhaps if I were to watch it with the eyes of a child, I would neither notice nor be bothered by such things. Still, it's undeniably there, and it doesn't gel very well at all with the gentleness of the film, and its innocent, "let's be friends and everyone is happy" feeling.

It's this aura of narrative incoherence that keeps Ponyo from reaching the heights of Miyazaki's other works; for otherwise, it's a magnificent piece of fantasy. Replacing his customary love of flight with a love of seafaring that works almost as well, the director has created quite a lovely world for his characters to explore and play in; and the growth that the two central characters experience is as true and rich as anything else he's ever shown. Perhaps, alongside Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo finds the director entering the waning period of his career (for a change, he didn't announce his retirement after this film), but if this is what Miyazaki looks like in decline, well, that's just further proof of how great a creative genius he is; because even this is better than 98% of most filmmakers at their very peak.