Watched via theater/BD



PLOT: Ponyo is a Studio Ghibli film loosely based off of the classic story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Being familiar with the original text, I was very skeptical of how Miyazaki was going to spin the tale to fit his style. In that regard, I think Ponyo fairs much better than Howl’s Moving Castle. While little of the story elements remain, the original has been adapted so often, that the essential archetypes are all that are needed to get the ball rolling.

Titular character Ponyo is a little goldfish who is curious and adventurous. One day she breaks free from her home and decides to wander around the ocean. That is until she is caught by a little boy, Sousuke. Just like any other parents, her wizard father and, quite literally, mother nature decide to send off waves to drive her back home where she belongs. Once she is back in her rightful place amongst her family, she decides to break the coop again, this time using her father’s ambiguous supply of magical potions. These, supplied with the human blood now in her, grant her the power to become a human girl! They also spill all over the place and cause a giant tsunami to head straight for the coast to destroy everyone.

Ponyo again finds Sousuke, and they become the best of friends. Unfortunately, they find each other right when the tsunami threatens to raze all of the coast, so they have to once again run away figuratively from her parents. Some deus ex machina later (spoiler), and the parents all come to a mutual agreement to let Ponyo stay with Sousuke’s family so that they have live together happily ever after. Yeah that’s right, these two five-year-olds are destined to be together forever. This is the biggest beef I have with the movie. I understand the drive to keep the story like the original, but the plot already deviated so much, why even bother keeping the ending similar. They could have just adopted each other like siblings, rather than essentially enter into a marriage contract at the age of five.

I like to keep my optimistic hat on here and accept that the kids already had that kind of interest in each other. I assume they’ll grow up to be adorable together, like the bakers from Kiki’s Delivery Service. >.>’

PLOT: Ponyo’s a classic story of boy-meets-girl where the girl happens to be magical and both of them are about five. Ponyo is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” so Ponyo’s the daughter of the sea goddess and a wizard who used to be human. One day she decides to visit the surface, and when she does, she meets Sousuke, who decides she’s his pet goldfish and names her Ponyo.

Ponyo’s father desperately wants his daughter back, so he uses the waves to find her and drag her home. Ponyo’s not happy about this, so she throws a fit and uses some magic, which mixes with Sousuke’s human blood (she licked his finger cut) and turns her into a little girl. Ponyo’s new magic is strong enough that she escapes her father and returns to Sousuke, who gladly accepts her as his best friend.

Because Ponyo’s parents are so upset about her leaving, they send more waves out looking for her, which creates a tsunami around Sousuke’s home. Sousuke’s mother has to deal with the tsunami’s effects at work and at home, all the while taking care of Sousuke and Ponyo, who’s constantly thrilled by the human world. This leads to some improbable events, and then Sousuke and Ponyo’s love gets tested, which feels a little silly because they’re five. However, (spoiler!) they’re found to have true love, and everything ends happily ever after.

Though Ponyo’s plot is pretty predictable, it moves along at a good clip and has enough character-driven moments to keep it interesting. Plus, surprise!, it also has commentary on humans’ pollution of the environment and how we should interact with nature. All things considered, it’s not Miyazaki’s most thought-provoking movie, but it does a better job of mixing together the characters’ storyline and the commentary than Howl’s Moving Castle.

For once Miyazaki was able to keep things simple. I think it’s a bit annoying that pollution has to be thrown into everything, but it works almost seamlessly within this story.

SETTING: Miyazaki always seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to setting. Ponyo is a striking rendition of Japan, and the coast lines and ocean illustrate the beauty and wonder of the Japanese shoreline. Not only is the landscape stunning, but the plot shows how treacherous it can be to live in a region wracked by weather and mother nature. Studio Ghibli took the basic elements of the Hans Christian Andersen story and really adapted it to fit seamlessly within a Japanese context. Not only do the setting and story mesh well together, but it speaks on a very universal level. Anyone can relate to the everyday life in a port city.

As for Ponyo’s life in the ocean, that is all a bit more ambiguous. We get the impression her father, who was once human, now helps control the ebb and flow of the ocean alongside Ponyo’s mother (mother nature?…the ocean spirit?…). Miyazaki of course throws in some punches about how humans destroy the ocean with their pollution, but we never see this resolved or really tied into the plot. I would have liked to see a bit stronger of a Romeo and Juliet vibe, with her father being a little more pissed about her choice in lifestyle. It would also have kept with the original plot a little better.

SETTING: Given Ponyo’s parentage, setting plays a fun role in this film, with explorations of life under the ocean and interactions between her parents. I especially liked seeing her father’s boat and how the ocean works to bring Ponyo back to him. The ocean’s waves are beautifully done in this film, as they act like characters in their own right. They’re just gorgeous.

On the human side, Sousuke’s home is also well enough developed to be interesting, with the landscape playing a major role in the film. In case you’d forgotten that Japan is full of mountains surrounded by the ocean, Ponyo shows plenty of both and how they can interact with extreme consequences. Instead of setting being an afterthought, Ponyo makes it integral to the narrative, which is very refreshing to see, though it’s par for the course with a Miyazaki film.

CHARACTERS: Unlike many of Studio Ghibli’s films which have characters with an appeal to wide audiences, Ponyo is aimed strongly at children and families. As such the characters operate a bit more simplistically than usual, aka they’re childish. If you don’t like children acting like children, then this may not be the movie for you. Take Ponyo as an example, she is bustling with energy and whines until she gets what she wants. Sure she’s an adorable fish/child (…okay maybe just quirky), but her behaviors can begin to grate on your nerves a bit when she does whatever she wants to the peril of humanity.

Sousuke however is a very well rounded and charming young lad. He helps his mother at the nursing home and likes to entertain the elderly ladies. His true purpose is to be a steady rock for those around him, including his mom and Ponyo. We see him time and again helping his mother to pick herself back up in the face of danger or through times of resentment at his father, who is always off at sea. By the end of the film I was so enamored with the big heartedness of Sousuke and his mom, that I couldn’t help but want them to live happily forever. I’m not sure why Ponyo had to come too, but whatever.

Speaking of Ponyo, I was very confused by the tone of her family dynamics. Her father seems like a very caring guy, if a bit controlling, but he ends up being cast as a type of “bad guy” to run from. Him and Ponyo’s mother end up fixing mess after mess that Ponyo creates. In the end everything is resolved just by talking matters out. I’m going to have to disagree with Crystal on this one and say that Ponyo’s father isn’t too controlling, Ponyo just never gives him the chance to logically talk things out. In the end she never solves the issue, she leaves it up to Sousuke’s mom to handle everything. In fact, the only character who seems to develop is Sousuke, and that’s because he ends up in an arranged marriage of sorts. Good luck with that.

For Ponyo’s part, she’s super young and of course incredibly immature, so I’m sure she never considered talking to her father. Plus, he seems very stuck in his ways to me, so I think it’d take something drastic to change his mind.

CHARACTERS: A lot of your reaction to this film will ride on whether or not you like Ponyo. She’s young, excitable, and brash, which could make her hard for some people to handle. I lump her in with Mei from Totoro, though, and just find her to be cute for her age. She is pretty self-entitled and loud, but she grows over the course of the movie and does have a lot to learn about life with humans.

Sousuke, on the other hand, is a pretty mature five-year-old. His father’s almost always away at sea, so he’s had to take care of himself a lot while his mother shoulders all of the parenting responsibility. This makes Sousuke immediately likable, as he is both young enough to find events wondrous but experienced enough to know how to react in dangerous situations. He and Ponyo have a good chemistry together, and his presence makes Ponyo a vast deal more palatable.

The parents of this film are interesting to contrast. Ponyo’s sea-goddess mother and Sousuke’s sea-captain father are both largely absent, though the children think on both of them fondly. Meanwhile, Ponyo’s father and Sousuke’s mother show different attitudes towards being essentially a single parent. Sousuke’s mother shoulders the burden better, relying on Sousuke and letting him have more free reign while she deals with other important matters. Ponyo’s father is a bit more extreme and controlling, which leads to some negative consequences and cautions viewers against keeping your children too close.

There are, of course, plenty of other characters in this film, and many of them are pleasant in traditional Miyazaki style. My favorites are the old ladies at the nursing home where Sousuke’s mother works. They seem very realistic to me and make me glad Sousuke’s got a strong support network.

Haha, I never thought about this being a demonstration on parenting techniques. I like the dynamics of single parenting that you pointed out, very profound.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Studio Ghibli always creates some of the best animated films, and Ponyo is no disappointment. The landscapes are breathtaking to behold with all of the subtle little details. I love how the natural elements move through space, such as the tidal waves. They are characterized and move comically, but flow with emotion and conviction. It’s as if there is a hint of the spiritual in every little facet of the movie.

The character designs are simple and charming. I’ve always admired how Miyazaki can create characters who are unique and strongly personified through individual touches and details of facial and body composition. A wonderful example would be the elderly ladies at the nursing home. Each has uniquely chiseled out visages that work flawlessly with their personalities. Even the voices work harmoniously the create the perfect rendition of each character.

I think what I enjoyed the most was how Ponyo slips in and out of her fish/human appearance. The changes are so subtle that you hardly notice at all until all of a sudden she has melted into another form through lack of concentration/energy.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: When Miyazaki was first working on Ponyo, he said he’d created a new character who would be more iconic than Totoro. This is pretty extreme, considering that Totoro is the de facto mascot for Studio Ghibli. After seeing this movie, I’d say Miyazaki didn’t succeed at outdoing Totoro, but he did create a really adorable little girl with Ponyo. Her first attempts at being human are pretty awkward, with her creepy chicken legs, but her other incarnations (human-headed fish and human little girl) are super cute, with the fish making for a very iconic film cover.

The other characters in Ponyo are also nicely designed and fit into the Miyazaki mold without mirroring other films’ characters too closely. Ponyo’s father looks a bit too extreme for my tastes, which makes him more comic than serious, but other than that I love all of the character designs for this movie. The old ladies stand out from other anime by actually looking old, again reminding me that at Studio Ghibli we see how aging really affects your face.

The animation is, of course, top notch, with a cute opening sequence and nice credits to match. The most inventive animation in the film comes from the waves, which act almost like fish as they follow Ponyo across town. The magical effects are also beautiful to behold, but the film still pays plenty of attention to the small details like Sousuke’s movements and Ponyo’s shifts in appearance.

Totoro will never be replaced! Mostly because he doesn’t talk, I don’t think you can have mascots that talk. It just ruins the magic and charisma.

OVERALL: Ponyo isn’t breaking any new grounds, it isn’t revolutionizing the world, and it definitely isn’t stopping people from destroying nature. However, it is charming the pants off of children and adults alike who want to watch a cute little story of friendship and family togetherness. Okay, you could also call it a story of love, but I’m not going to.

My first reaction to watching Ponyo was to be a bit miffed. I wanted more from Miyazaki than a strange arranged marriage between boy and fish. The ending is slapped on like a bandaid covering up a massive wound. However, the characters and animation are so delightful that if you set all that aside, you’ll likely enjoy yourself immensely.

Am I telling you to settle and just enjoy the childishness and corny plot? Yes.

Considering that Ponyo has great secondary characters and amazing attention to setting, it still stands above most anime coming out, even with its glaring problems.

OVERALL: Like Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo isn’t one of Miyazaki’s stronger movies. It’s been used a lot as an example of how Miyazaki’s getting worse as a director, which I think is a bit harsh. Yes, it doesn’t mesh as well thematically as Princess Mononoke, but not everything has to. I view this film more as a reprise of the attention to childhood we saw in My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, though this is more of a straight-up romance.

So, no, this film isn’t amazing, but it’s a more honest look at childhood than we see in most anime. There’s also a nice romance that isn’t too hard for me to believe in, all things considered. Plus, the visuals are constantly beautiful to look at between the interesting color palette and the movements of the ocean-related elements. If you can’t stand movies about children or only want high art-quality work from Miyazaki, this won’t be your cup of tea, but if you take it for what it is, you’ll see that it’s a great movie about childhood that’s pretty darn heartwarming.


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