The original story of The Little Mermaid is about a mermaid who dreams of some day becoming a human. Ponyo is based on the same theme, but this time it’s a goldfish called Brunhilde who dreams of becoming human. This isn’t Disney computer-assisted animation as usual, however, but rather the amazing hand-animated world of Japanese legend Hayao Miyazaki.
You’ve probably heard of Miyazaki, he’s had three films in relatively wide distribution here in the United States: Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. None of those hit the big time, however, and with the backing of Disney and some top voice talent, there are high hopes for little Ponyo.
The film was released in mid-2008 in Japan under the name Gake no ue no Ponyo, with a tagline “Welcome to a world where anything is possible.” All of the voices in that original are Japanese actors, as you’d expect, including Yuria Nara (Ponyo) and Hiroki Doi (Sosuke). In the new release, everything’s redubbed into English, with Miley Cyrus’ little sister Noah Lindsey Cyrus as Ponyo and littlest Jonas Brother Frankie Jonas as Sosuke.
In this lovely story, little goldfish Brunhilde (Sosuke names her Ponyo when he finds her) is chafing under the grip of her batty mad-scientist dad Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), who has grown a hatred of humans because of their littering of the oceans and is storing up magic potion to bring the sea back to the “Devonian Era”.
Escaping his grip to explore the greater world, Ponyo finds herself trapped in a jar, unable to break free. Luckily five year old Sosuke, a kind-hearted, sweet little boy, finds her while playing in the surf with his toy boat and carefully breaks the jar, freeing her. He puts her in a bucket of water and carries her about as a pet and playmate.
The story, about Ponyo and Sosuke’s adventures as the water level of the ocean keeps rising and cuts them off from Sosuke’s mom, Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey), is wonderous and Miyazaki avoids the heavy environmental moralizing of his previous films, making this an instant masterpiece of its genre.
By sheer effort of will combined with some magic stolen from her Dad, Ponyo sprouts arms and legs, transforming herself into a little human girl. She seeks out Sosuke, having fallen in love with him, and thereby disrupts the balance of magic, causing a tsunami that raises the sea level many feet in Sosuke’s town and threatening to destroy the world.
This isn’t scary and the townspeople of Sosuke’s little Japanese village are cool, level-headed folk who handle the rising sea level with aplomb, tying their boats together in an impromptu parade of refugees seeking higher ground, but in good spirits the entire time. Sosuke’s own home includes a short-wave radio, an ocean signaling light (since Sosuke’s father, Kiochi, voiced by Matt Damon, is a cargo ship captain), propane tank and generator, everything needed to be self-sufficient in an emergency.
Having spent many years watching the computer-based relatively sterile animation of Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, Ponyo is a very different experience, with quirky and human characters that are not only believable, but quickly become a delight to watch. Indeed, much of the humor of the film comes from the witty dialog between the many characters in the film, along with Sosuke’s mother Lisa, who gets so angry at her husband at one point that she slams the phone down and flashes the signal “BUG OFF” to convey her upset.
In a dreamlike way, there are no big challenges or obstacles for Ponyo and Sosuke to overcome in the film, no villains, just a big, wide, curious world to explore as they seek the secret to have Ponyo permanently become a human child (shades of Pinocchio?) and stop the destruction of the Earth.
When I saw the first few minutes of the film, it struck me how similar it felt to the children’s animated series Little Bear in tone and color, but it wasn’t long before the complexity, rich imagination and sheer inventiveness of Miyazaki came through.
Ultimately, though, the film is about Sosuke’s mythic hero’s journey, set in a marvelous world half-undersea and half-small Japanese fishing village. With a wonderful orchestral score, it was a highly enjoyable film that I’m ready to have my children see in the theater and will likely buy for all of us to watch again when it’s available on DVD.