by HELEN GEIB
Ponyo, the title character of writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated feature, is an inquisitive goldfish who decides she wants to be human after bonding with a young boy named Sosuke who rescued her from a glass bottle. Little Ponyo is a magical being, the progeny of a once-human wizard of the sea and an elemental ocean-mother goddess. She transforms herself into a girl of Sosuke’s age and leaves her home in the sea to live with him on land.
The sequence of Ponyo’s post-transformation journey from sea to land rivals anything in Miyazaki’s impressive filmography. Ponyo’s numerous little red goldfish sisters temporarily transform into huge fish-dolphin creatures that look like towering waves to the people on the shore; they’re a medley of vibrant blues with white accents. They are just trying to help Ponyo reach Sosuke’s family’s house, which is perched on top of a cliff above a fishing village, but the reverberations of their passage through the water stir up a typhoon. The waves crash against the cliff face as Sosuke and his mother careen wildly up the mountain road in their little green car with the water lapping furiously at their heels. Ponyo, red-headed and wearing a bright red dress and white bloomers, radiates joyful excitement as she runs on the surf. She radiates happiness as she revels in the success of her transformation and the anticipation of reuniting with Sosuke. The beauty, vigor, inventiveness- the pure charm of it all- is immense.
Ponyo (voiced in the English-language release version by Noah Cyrus) and Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) are just adorable, both as individuals and in their interactions with each other. Their behavior and speech seems genuinely childlike, with Ponyo adding a sweet and comical otherworldliness in her wide-eyed wonder at modern conveniences like battery-powered lights and instant noodles. Sosuke’s spirited, good-humored mother Lisa (Tina Fey) is a delight as well. We don’t see very much of Sosuke’s ship’s captain father Koichi (Matt Damon), but he seems a likable fellow, and the family dynamics are believable and very appealing.
Ponyo invites comparison to Miyazaki’s early film My Neighbor Totoro in the similarly realistic young child protagonists, picture of ordinary family life, and setting at the boundary between this world and the spirit world. Totoro is arguably Miyazaki’s best film for its perfect balance of story, character, and art and seamless blend of naturalism and supernatural elements. So it’s high praise to note that the core story and characters of Ponyo bear up well under the comparison and the animation is even more wondrous than in the earlier film.
However, it is not as well written as Totoro. The climax is manufactured drama, putting Sosuke to a “test” of his love for Ponyo that doesn’t make a lot of sense in story terms and is anyway meaningless for a child of five. Moreover, Ponyo’s father suffers under the weight of a lot of awful dialogue about how people are despoiling the seas and he’s going to wipe out the human race with his magical potions. His scenes feel like remnants of a subplot cut out from a much longer first draft, while the environmentalist’s point is made far more eloquently by an early, purely visual sequence of Ponyo swimming through a current-borne debris field of tires, bottles, household appliances, and other such detritus. Not even Liam Neeson’s mellifluous Irish baritone can disguise that the sea wizard’s speeches are no better than the filmmaker’s self-indulgent rant.