Synopsis: During a forbidden excursion to see the surface world, a goldfish princess encounters a human boy named Sōsuke, who gives her the name Ponyo. Ponyo longs to become human, and as her friendship with Sōsuke grows, she becomes more humanlike. Ponyo’s father brings her back to their ocean kingdom, but so strong is Ponyo’s wish to live on the surface that she breaks free, and in the process, spills a collection of magical elixirs that endanger Sōsuke’s village.
In this (very, very loose) adaptation of The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki returns to basics. When I saw the title cards at the start of the film, I thought of his oldest films, like Castle in the Sky and Totoro. Ponyo has a lot in common with the latter film especially. But whilst Totoro was about children finding solace through fantasy from the complex world around them, Ponyo rejects complexity and the adult world, running on child-like logic throughout.
This is clear right from the film’s art direction – colour pencil backgrounds and bright flat colours that are further emphasised by the lack of shadows. The film’s chaos – and Ponyo is chaotic, even for Miyazaki- is lighthearted and exuberant. At some point, I accepted that Lisa, Sōsuke’s mum, would always drive like crazy – once I did, I could sit back and enjoy her race waves with her five-year-old son in the passenger seat. In fact, this film gave me major anxiety sometimes. There was no car safety, no child safety, no boat safety. But Miyazaki doesn’t care. If his heroes are gonna go seafaring on a toy boat, so be it! Leave your grown-up logic at the door, the film seemed to say. This is, first and foremost, about the kids.
Sōsuke and Ponyo lead a fun cast of characters whose personalities elevate the movie’s magic. As in Totoro, Miyazaki demonstrates excellent understanding of children’s psyche. There’s no attempt to make Sōsuke and Ponyo unrealistically self-aware – they sound like kids, they talk like kids, they act like kids. Both are emotionally simple, and display a lot of curiosity about the world around them. Sōsuke was especially delightful to watch. He’s smart in the five-year-old way – showing off all his trivia – but he’s animated with a certain self-consciousness and clumsiness that brings him to life. The earnestness with which he declares his love for Ponyo is a perfect depiction of the simple, pure love children often have for those around them.
Everyone else, from Lisa to the nursing home ladies to the townspeople, were all familiar Miyazaki archetypes. But these archetypes never stop being charming. I love how everyone randomly accepts goldfishes with faces, waves that look like fish, a sea goddess. My personal favourite has to be Fujimoto, Ponyo’s dad. He was the stressed, over-worked adult who did care about all the things other characters took with smiles. Something about his gangly, quasi-scholarly appearance reminded of Diana Wynne Jones. He seemed like the sort of character she would write. And as Jones herself created some of the most magical worlds in literature, I guess that’s the highest compliment I can give the film. It’s pure magic.
There’s not much else to say about this movie; what you see is what you get. Miyazaki channels all his charm and charisma into a perfectly breezy flick. It’s definitely simpler than his other films, but honestly, this is the type of Miyazaki film I like best.