Anime Feature Film Review – Ponyo (2009)



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.

9 responses to “Anime Feature Film Review – Ponyo (2009)

  1. I saw this film a few months back and was pleasantly surprised because, even though Miyazaki is THE BEST in the world in what he does, it’s a family film that remains original all through to the end.
    The imagery in the last 30 minutes still sticks in my mind.

  2. Normally I watch my anime subtitled, but I’m glad Disney has released good quality English dubs of the Miyazaki films, especially the ones like “Ponyo” and “My Neighbor Totoro” that have particularly strong appeal for young children. When the Studio Ghibli logo came on the screen at the start of “Ponyo,” several little kids around the theater called out “that’s Totoro!” It was really sweet.

  3. I know what you mean but still can’t see it in theatres just because it’s in English. It’s burned into my subconscious and there’s nothing I can do about it.

    I just bought “Goldenboy” the complete series, a personal favourite of mine, and I remember that Japanese voice actor that plays the main character Kintaro Oe is so darn good it’s shameful hearing the English.
    Then again, “Ranma 1/2” and “Ninja Scroll” are amazing in English.

  4. @Helen: Ahhh! I’m surprised they knew who that was.

    Your points are well thought out and pretty much echo mine. The climax and ending of the film felt tacked on and a “love” story between two children was kind of silly. Furthermore, we never really got to learn much of Ponyo’s father.

    However, the animation was brilliant and completely makes the film worth seeing.

  5. @Nir: I can sympathize since I much prefer to listen to the original soundtrack, but I’d sit through even a bad English dub for the chance to see a good anime on the big screen. Fortunately the Ponyo English dub is pretty good. Disney has generally done well by the Miyazaki films. Surprisingly, I actually like the English dub for Howl’s Moving Castle much more than the Japanese. I’ve never cared for the Princess Mononoke dub, but 70% of that is Billy Bob Thornton.

    @Aaron: I completely agree – it is a really gorgeous movie. I loved the wave running sequence so much I’d go even further and say it was worth seeing the movie just for that!

  6. I hadn’t watched Howl’s Moving Castle in English because after seeing it once in Japanese I never wanted to see it again; I think it’s a weak film. For some reason I just don’t “get it”. The magic is completely random and the universe in which the characters reside is not explained properly. I thought it was gorgeous, the castle alone is a marvel to behold, but rather lacked substance.

  7. @Nir:

    I agree. I especially disliked the lack character progression and the frequent reoccurence of the deux-ex-machina.

  8. “Howl’s Moving Castle” is hands-down my favorite Miyazaki film. Maybe I’ll be able to convince you both to give it another try when I reach it in my review series.

  9. I honestly want to see it again because every year I become stronger at perception than the year previous, and believe I can pick up what I missed years back.


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