CAPSULE: A magical "goldfish" turns herself human to learn about the real humans. A five-year-old adopts her, and the two find they love each other. But dark forces from the sea bring a natural disaster in vengeance for her misbehavior and the boy and the girl-fish have to go find the boy's mother. This film is really aimed at young children. Hayao Miyazaki is off his game with this film that has weaker art and animation than his usual films and a script that needed another draft or two. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most respected makers of animated films in the world. His Studio Ghibli has given us classic films like MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, PRINCESS MONONOKE, and SPIRITED AWAY. (A treasured memory was sitting across the aisle from him at the North American premiere of SPIRITED AWAY.) Sadly, I think his PONYO is several steps backward for him. That is not entirely his fault. The animation of PONYO is flat and dull, but part of that is that he does not obviously use computer animation and he is competing with animators like Pixar. I can accept that he does not have the detail that Pixar has in their images, but PONYO animation looks primitive compared to previous Miyazaki films such as SPIRITED AWAY. Near the opening of the film is a flood of jellyfish filling the screen. It seems intended to convey an awe of the wonder and beauty of sea life. But as a hand drawing it loses the edge of realism that would have made it look believable. It ends up falling short of the desired effect. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO also had simple animation, but that film is now sixteen years old and standards have changed.
Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus) is a goldfish living in the ocean. But she has a driving curiosity about the humans who rule the land. To see land people, and without the permission of her human-shaped sea-magician father (Liam Neeson), she goes to take a look at what life is like on land. This gets her trapped in a small jar and a human has to smash the jar to get her out, luckily unharmed. The human is the five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas). It is love at first sight between her and the boy. Later the magical Ponyo takes a form of a human. The love of a boy for his fish/girl becomes like the love he would have for another person. The two have different backgrounds but build a firm relationship on both liking ham. Trouble comes when Sosuke's mother Lisa is angry that Sosuke's father is taking too many overtime shifts fishing for the company he works for. And she has good reason to worry. Ponyo's father is arranging a tsunami in punishment for this daughter's disobedience.
I doubt that anybody at Disney, the company that released PONYO in the United States, would tell someone of Miyazaki's stature that he should have changed his storyline, but there is much in PONYO that probably would have been unacceptable in an American-written script. Some touches just seem strange. This is in large part a romance between two five-year-olds, though they act a good deal more mature. At one point Sosuke just wanders away from his school, which is probably against the rules and quite dangerous, but either nobody notices or the results seem to be left as a loose end. Later Lisa is driving up a wet, twisty, and dangerous road and takes her attention off the road to lick an ice cream cone. Eventually she goes off in a disaster and leaves the two children untended. She seems like a terrible mother. There are portions of this film that make no sense. Non-magical people under water seem to have the power to breathe, talk, and walk. (This may have been intended to be inside a bubble, but that is never made clear. There is a lot of unexplained magic going on. Even if they were in a bubble they do not seem to be very ruffled by their situation.)
Way too much of PONYO seems ill-considered and rushed. I know this film is getting really good critical response, but it really is a pale shadow of the best films Miyazaki has made. I rate PONYO a disappointing low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Note: In a time-honored tradition of Disney films the assumption is made that squid swim with their tentacles ahead of them. It is thought real squid are capable of some movement like that, but they swim almost exclusively in the other direction with the tentacles trailing. Also goldfish do not spit and they live only in fresh water. Ponyo's magical origins might explain the inaccuracies, but somebody should have noticed that Ponyo was like no other goldfish. The Japanese version may have made Ponyo another kind of fish.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0876563
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ponyo
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper