There is film, and then there is animation. There is animation, and then there is anime. There is anime, and then there is Ghibli. There is Ghibli, and then there is Miyazaki ... He might not be my all-time favorite anime director, but he is the biggest force in the anime scene, and one to be reckoned with. Everything he touches turns to gold and people in Japan flock to cinemas whenever he makes another one of his famous "last films". Ponyo is no different.
Miyazaki is rightfully considered an Auteur, but even though all of his films undeniably carry his mark, his body of work can be roughly divided into two separate parts. On one side of the fence is the big, bombastic, loud and eco-driven Miyazaki, on the other side the smaller, more quiet and timid Miyazaki. Ever since Chihiro brought back that Oscar, it's the loud one that's been getting the most attention, yet I personally am more fond of Miyazaki's softer side. If anything, Miyazaki is a master of portraying childlike wonder on the silver screen, and for that you don't need an army of weird creatures, advanced fantasy settings or dramatic ecological world-threatening scenarios. All you require is some green woods, colorful characters and a neat little fantasy twist. With Ponyo, Miyazaki travels back to his glory days, reviving the magic of films like Totoro, Porco Rosso and Kiki's Delivery Service.
Ponyo is loosely based on the tale of The Little Mermaid. The core of the story is more or less the same, the world around it is definitely Miyazaki's. Little Ponyo is a goldfish with a human face, child of a castaway human and a sorceress of the sea. She lives in the protected world of her father but is more than keen to explore the outside world. When one day she ventures farther than she is supposed to go, she gets entangled in a fisherman's net and ends up stuck in a bottle near the shore, right in front of Sosuke. He takes her in and from that moment on they are best friends. The only threat in the film comes from Ponyo's father, who isn't too fond of Ponyo joining the human world. As you can see, the story is pretty simple, and it doesn't get more complicated than this. If you want more magical bathhouses and walking castles, Ponyo might feel a little empty, but those craving for another Totoro will rejoice at the simplicity of it all.
Main attraction of the film is Ponyo herself. Quite simply endearing from the very first seconds until the final shot. Ghibli's fetish with children is only growing stronger, and by now they know perfectly well how to transfer their exclusive little world onto the big screen. The way Ponyo and Sosuke move, react, look around and think, play around and enjoy the simplest of things, Miyazaki has it covered and turns it into pure magic. But even the simplified fish form of Ponyo's character is beyond cute. The magic is often hidden away in little details, how she jumps up, runs into things or looks at the wonders of instant noodles. It might not be the most thought-provoking or complex cinema, but as far as heart-warming cinema is concerned, there is no one out there able to beat Miyazaki. Seeing Sosuke and Ponyo on screen together is all this film needs, and it delivers in spades.
Visually Ponyo is quite a tricky film. The first rumors seemed to indicate a new twist for Miyazaki's style. That it is not, but Ponyo does differ from his earlier films. The drawing style looks a little less detailed, but the animation is all the more complex and active because of it. There are several key scenes where this is very obvious. The waves for example are made up of a few simple lines and are just given a darker tint, but when they start moving they whirl across the screen as if they had all the money in the world to burn on a few waves. I was quite surprised by the actual amount of detail that went into the animation rather than backgrounds and character designs. Another typical ingredient of the Ghibli magic, but this time they really went overboard. Not that I mind, the film looks very jolly and colorful, the character designs and settings are magical and Miyazaki does some very cool things with the sea, rather than to portray it as photo realistic as possible. And to his credit, Miyazaki did most of the sea animation by himself. The man never seems to tire.
Seeing the film as a whole, it's a truly splendid experience, but there were a few little hiccups. Ponyo's father doesn't really flow well with the rest of the film. He is the first character we are introduced to and all dramatic tension comes from his presence, but these dramatic or tense intermissions feel a little out of place. They tear away at the magic of the film, trying to create suspense where I was just hungering for more cuteness. These moments are scarce though, which makes you wonder all the more why they were even added in the first place. Still, this is only a minor annoyance in an otherwise lovely film.
The film is further strengthened by Hisaishi's score which seems to hit all the right notes. Add to that the incredibly and hilariously cute and addictive theme song and musically Ponyo is as strong as Miyazaki's best. Sosuke's mother and the elderly ladies help to flesh out the story and provide some endearing scenes, but it's definitely the little grumpy baby that steals the supporting character award for this film. What an odd, yet funny little character.
Ponyo is a feast for all fans that were wishing Miyazaki would return to his pre-Mononoke era, and for those people it might even reach the same heights as Totoro did. The only reservation I have is the fast introduction of dramatic tension, which was hardly appropriate, but ignoring that there is plenty of magic to go around. A lovely film to watch in theaters with an appreciative audience and one little Japanese toddler in particular, who started crying halfway through (when Ponyo was abducted) but at the end of the movie was happily dancing along to the theme song. It is great to see Miyazaki return to his former self after 15 years, Ponyo is certainly up there with the best of his work and is a good step up from Mononoke, Chihiro and Howl. Hope he keeps making films like this for a long, long time.