Take a Drink: whenever you see a boat.
Take a Drink: for bubbles!
Take a Drink: whenever anything spills.
Do Not Take a Drink: whenever anyone says ‘Ponyo.’ You still have so much more to give.
Do a Shot: when Cate Blanchett’s character is finally drawn in proportion to the other characters.
Finish Your Drink: when balance is restored.
By: Sarah Shachat (Two Beers) –
I have two very important words for you: Goldfish Princess.
Ponyo, although artistically drawn with the same conscious eye for beauty which elevates Finding Nemo, is more narratively drawn from The Little Mermaid‘s fairy fish tradition. But the film splits its time between our part fish, part girl, part indeterminate heroine and our other hero, normal boy Sosuke. Here’s the deal, though, and the spirit in which you should the film’s main conceit: both main characters are like five. Yeah. There aren’t really coming of age concerns going on in Ponyo as there in so many other great Ghibli films because, man, how awful would it be to come of age before you hit double digits? The movie is, instead, a lovely little adventure, with action that turns on a dime, the tiniest dab of an ecological message, and fire-powered boats.
The shenanigans start when Ponyo, the eldest daughter of an ocean guardian and a sea goddess (just go with it), sneaks away from her dad Fujimoto’s underwater boat and flops into Sosuke’s beach bucket. They immediately hit it off, go to show and tell, magically heal paper cuts and ingest human blood thus upsetting the balance between magic and mortals – you know, kid stuff. Balance turns out to be kind of important. Even as Sosuke’s mom Lisa races to take care of her residents at a senior center, Fujimoto races to stop the moon from causing the seas to overwhelm the Earth (just go with it). The movie is, in another two important words, completely charming.
Probably the most striking thing about Ponyo is how easily things seem to happen. It has an effortlessness which is really quite special. It imposes its own logic on you, right at the start, with a beautiful sequence of Fujimoto taking care of the ocean floor. The viewer is simply swept up into the film’s pull. That doesn’t so much mean tides, but a rhythm that is much more poetry than prose. Some of the slowness and the elegance and the childlike sense of wonder in the film comes from the animation style, of course. The fact it’s hand-drawn, with bright, broad backgrounds, expressive landscape work, and fluid characters all help craft the film’s tone. Ponyo is deeply sweet, but fully realized, too.
A lot of the beauty also comes from Miyazaki’s themes and general sensibilities. Care, kindness, and friendship drive pretty much every decision, every scene, every outcome in the film. And the miracle is that it’s never gooey or boring. Ponyo and Sosuke’s friendship involves a good deal of hijinks and play, not to mention giant stampeding schools of fish. We have some old grumps to balance this out, of course, authentic strains of a couple long-distance relationships, normal life, and a very keen sense of the wider world. That last thing is an important piece of context, as Ponyo and Sosuke’s choices are shown to have real consequence on the natural and human world. How they learn to behave towards it may determine its fate. Ponyo, then, relies not on the success of its humor or the thrills of its action (though, they both work in a soft, charming way), but on its characters being compelling, and on them making decisions we hope we would make.
The English voice cast, by the way, is pretty fantastic, worth dropping your subtitle scruples. Liam Neeson is a curmudgeon worthy of his giant animated mustache as Fujimoto; Cate Blanchett is, to the surprise of exactly no one, a great Goddess; Tiny Fey does a decent job as the exceedingly decent Lisa; Matt Damon was probably paid too much for the amount of screentime he gets as Sosuke’s dad Koichi, but is wonderfully enthusiastic; the cadre of old folks are voiced by all-pros Lily Tomlin, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman; and as Ponyo and Sosuke Noah Lindey Cyrus and Frankie Jonas more than live up to their surnames. The English script was adapted by John Lasseter, he of Toy Story divinity. Ponyo isn’t going for the same pleasures, but Lasseter brings a delight to the material which he clearly felt for it. That’s pretty much all you can ask for.
American audiences especially will find places to compare Ponyo with another pretty recent animated adventure about a fish who gets lost. Now, this is usually the place where your humble DVD reviewer would try to win film hipster cred by professing the merits of the obscurer choice, the artisanal foreign import. Nope. Pixar wins this one. Ponyo is pretty in the painterly, calm, watercolor way most Ghibli films are, but its beauty is never arresting. It never hits you, as the kids say, in the feels. That makes some of the crazy stuff that happens less wondrous than they should be. The tone of the film is so innocent and playful most of the time, too, that when there is depth it feels a little incongruous. Ponyo is by no means a poor film. It’s just slightly uneven, paced in fits, and scored sometimes too aggressively.
Ponyo is lively, bright, and fun. It has a couple really great sequences and a sense of kindness and care as warm as a cuppa tea. It just is, by design and in execution, a little bit more for kids than other Miyazaki movies.