It is my fault and not that of Miyazaki Hayao that I went into Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff, literally translated), the great animation director’s latest work, with an entirely useless set of preconceptions. Primarily, I made the grave mistake of entering the film thinking it would be a continuation of his recent line of masterful dark anime fairy tales, when – exactly like the advertising says – it’s first and above all a sweet and innocent story for children, on a model that he hasn’t worked with in some two decades. And because I haven’t actually seen any of Miyazaki’s more unambiguous “kids’ movies”, I wasn’t prepared for what that entails.
But like I said: my fault, not his. Miyazaki clearly made exactly the movie he set out to make, and once you get used to the peculiar rhythms of the story and the atypical animation, it’s kind of hard not to fall in love with its gentleness. At any rate, it is truly refreshing and heartening to see a movie made for children that treats its target audience with such all-encompassing respect: it does not assume that young viewers need something ridiculously fast-paced and kinetic, nor does it succumb to any sort of pressure to be a pop culture artifact first, and a work of art second. It is respectful of the children that come to see it, treating them as intelligent beings who are capable of sitting quietly and patiently as beauty unfolds in front of them. It is, in other words, everything that most family films made and released in America are not, and proof of the essential hollowness that resides inside most of the things Hollywood tries to fob off as kiddie fare. And all it took to find it was leaving the Western Hemisphere behind.
The plot has the simplicity of a fairy tale, not least because it is essentially a dressed-up copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid: there is a little red fish-girl who lives in a submarine with her hundreds of sisters and her father Fujimoto, who was once a human and now travels the sea seeking to protect it from the ravages of human pollution (environmentalism being, of course, one of the overriding concerns in Miyazaki’s films). Now it happens that this particular girl longs to see the surface, and she sneaks away, but is caught in a trawl net and stuck inside a glass jar. The jar washes up to the edge of a bluff, and on this bluff a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke lives with his mother and sometimes his father, who is otherwise away a lot on a fishing boat. Sosuke finds the jar and rescues the little fish, naming her Ponyo, an promising to love her always; when she tastes a little of his blood, the desire awakens within her to become a human girl, so they can always be together; except that the steps she takes to secure this transformation leave the world out of balance, dragging the moon towards the earth, and giant waves soon cover the town near Sosuke’s home. There is only one way for Ponyo to become a human and to save the planet; the two youngsters work to make sure that this is just what happens.
If anything, I believe that I have made the plot seem much more daunting than it is: this is your basic story of “magical fish princess wants to be human”, although since Miyazaki is a fairly masterful storyteller, he can’t just leave it at that; and so Ponyo is filled up with a broad cast of characters and incident, although the scope of the narrative remains resolutely domestic and intimate. Perhaps even too domestic; if there is one overriding, unanswerable flaw with Ponyo – I’m not certain that there is – it’s that the film is essentially undramatic: things happen, yes, and a couple of them are even mildly scary, dangerous things, but when you get right down to it, this is a story abnormally low on conflict. Now, I’m unprepared to call that a real problem, because the pleasures of the movie lie elsewhere. But it is a little strange and difficult to get used to.
Unsurprisingly, the real joy lies in the visuals, which are unlike any other Miyazaki film I, at least, have seen: Ponyo‘s palette is infinitely softer, more pastel shall we say, than a Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. It feels much more hand-drawn, stripped-down, simple; and it is also immensely appealing. The film opens with a wordless sequence following Ponyo’s first escape, through a world full of jellyfish and hundreds of other ocean creatures, and in this brief passage of film Miyazaki makes an unimpeachable argument for the primacy of traditional animation; each frame so clearly assembled with great love and affection for the craft, and besides that, it’s simply flat-out marvelous to see, an ocean as full of life as anything could be, teeming with color and movement.
The gentle look of the film, halfway between watercolors and colored pencils, gives Ponyo the certain air of an illustrated storybook; I cannot imagine that this wasn’t at least somewhat the point. It’s a comforting movie to look at: where a Pixar film may wow us with the scope and audacity of the visuals, Miyazaki is here just trying to produce something lovely, something we will be happy to look at. This may be the most intriguing triumph of Ponyo as a work of children’s cinema: the way it reduces an adult to a more infantile state, where the mere fact of pleasing colors is itself a comfort and entertainment. The film’s pleasures are immensely simple, but this does not make them less real or wonderful.
And finally, something I really would just as soon not have brought up: the acting. Yes, this is an English-language dub. Yes, Disney’s dubs of Miyazaki are always created with great care, even more not that John Lasseter is over there, calling the shots. Yes, some of the performances – especially Liam Neeson as Fujimoto and Lily Tomlin as one of the trio of elderly women Sosuke is friendly with – are generally good, although Noah Cyrus (Miley’s little sister) is a touch too shrill as Ponyo for my tastes. I cannot, in fact, come up with a single fault in the film’s English audio, which is not distracting and works just fine for the movie’s good. But it’s still not the audio that Miyazaki prepared, and I don’t have to like it one bit that it’s the only way to see the film until the DVD comes out, if we’re lucky.