In a feature-animation landscape increasingly dominated by young guys with computers, he’s a 68-year-old, 30-year veteran devoted to traditional hand-drawn animation. There’s a deliberate pacing to his stories that’s out of step with the manic, almost frantic approach of much computer-animated fare. His worlds are full of strange creations that are often more creepy than cuddly, and certainly not designed to push merchandise.
Ponyo writer/director and Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki seems to represent everything the modern kid-flick most decidedly is not. Yet if you’ve been to an animated film during the last 15 years, you’ve seen a film shaped by his influence.
Ever since 2002’s Spirited Away, the American release of Miyazaki’s films has been under the Disney banner — and more specifically, overseen by Pixar and avowed Miyazaki fan John Lasseter. Pixar’s Pete Docter directed the American version of Howl’s Moving Castle, and incorporated many of Miyazaki’s visual dynamics into the look of Up. Disney releases, as Lasseter has taken over the feature animation division, increasingly have shown Miyazaki’s fingerprints. And with Ponyo, the reverse is becoming true as well.
Ponyo is, at its core, a spin on The Little Mermaid. In a Japanese seaside village, 5-year-old Sosuke (voice of Frankie Jonas) lives with his mother (Tina Fey) and a seafaring, often-absent father (Matt Damon). Along the shore one day, Sosuke finds a unique-looking goldfish that he names Ponyo and wants to keep as a pet.
What Sosuke doesn’t know is that Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) is actually the daughter of a human wizard named Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) and a powerful sea goddess (Cate Blanchett). Little Ponyo longs to be human and return to the boy she loves — but she doesn’t know that the magic she unleashes in her attempt to do so might destroy the world.
Considering the apocalyptic threat that drives Ponyo’s plot — and the magical environmental activism that motivates Fujimoto — the film radiates a decidedly non-threatening vibe. It’s Miyazaki’s first film to qualify for an American G-rating since 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the story’s sensibilities largely follow those of its kindergarten-age protagonist. Sure, there’s a violent storm that separates Sosuke from his parents and sends him on an adult-less quest to find them, but haven’t such journeys been the stuff of nursery rhymes and fairy tales for hundreds of years?
Following that journey also allows an appreciation for one of the qualities that has made Miyazaki’s films so singular over the years: his abiding sense of wonder. Ponyo opens with an introduction to the undersea world of Fujimoto and Ponyo, and the director lingers wordlessly on the creatures that swim, scuttle and pulsate through the ocean waters.
When the human Ponyo finally makes her way to Sosuke’s home, there’s a delightful sequence in which the girl explores her new world with a giddy spring in her step — including smacking face first into a sliding glass door. That child’s-eye-view delight in discovery renders even the potentially scary elements as opportunities for exploration, rather than as the stuff of nightmares.
Yet it’s also true that Ponyo feels decidedly more Disney-fied than Miyazaki’s more recent offerings — and not just because his main characters are voiced by Miley Cyrus’ younger sister and the Jonas Brothers’ younger brother. Instead of the singular manifestations of Miyazaki’s imagination — the massive, burbling “stink demon” in Spirited Away, or the pogostick animated scarecrow of Howl’s Moving Castle — there are cuter, less fantastical creations as in Ponyo’s minnow-like school of younger sisters. As vividly as Miyazaki realizes the details of his world’s environment — most notably the twisty mountain road between Sosuke’s home and his mother’s workplace — it generally feels like part of this world. Miyazaki’s sense for other realms is missed.
He’s still impressive when focusing on purely human moments, of course. There’s a wonderful sequence involving Sosuke’s mother showing her anger with another missed meal by his father, the jerky movements and frustration perfectly pitched. And when it comes to the interior life of children, Miyazaki continues to get it in a way filmmakers half his age don’t.
Maybe Ponyo doesn’t find Miyazaki at his captivating best, spinning visions that will shape the next generation of animated filmmaking. Yet even when he’s playing strictly to the kids, he still shows that he can teach the young turks a thing or two. Grade: B