Hayao Miyazaki's latest film Ponyo may be inspired by "The Little Mermaid," but amidst its stunning underwater scenes and raging storms, it's less a tale of romantic love than of strong, self-sufficient characters eager for new adventures.
Miyazaki doesn't hesitate to show us his underwater vision, a dreamy land of shimmering squid, inquisitive fish, and swirling bubbles of jellyfish. This is where the sea wizard Fujimoto, an easily flustered fellow in a vaudevillian jacket voiced in the English-language version by Liam Neeson, practices his magic. Frustrated by the garbage dumped into his ocean waters, Fujimoto has developed an extreme hatred of humanity, and he is storing up magic to bring the sea back to the Devonian Era, ending the reign of humans. But his eldest daughter, a goldfish with a human face named Brunhilde, is not content to watch her father stew and brew, and quietly slips away one day to explore the rest of the sea.
After a run-in with a garbage trawler, Brunhilde is trapped inside a jar and washes up on the shore of a seaside town. There, she is discovered by five year-old Sosuke, who quickly recognizes her as a magical fish, dubs her "Ponyo," and vows to take care of her. Sosuke cares for Ponyo for the better part of a day, slipping out of school and bringing her to the senior center next door where his mother, Lisa, works, but Fujimoto manages to reclaim his wayward daughter, commanding the currents to seize her and bring her home.
But Ponyo has already fallen in love with the kind-hearted Sosuke, and, with the help of her little sisters, escapes her fathers home and steals his magic, transforming herself into a human so she may seek out Sosuke. Her transgression unleashes a tsunami on Japan and creates an imbalance that threatens to destroy the world, but that's of little concern to Ponyo, who simply wants to be reunited with Sosuke and learn to adapt to life on land.
Despite Fujimoto's grumbling about humans and their pollution, Ponyo contains little of the moralizing of Princess Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle. Ecological disaster strikes, but when it does, it's caused not by humans and their ignorance, but by the magical beings that inhabit the ocean. And the people of Sosuke's town are a level-headed, competent bunch. When the town is flooded by the storm, they band together in boats and search the town for neighbors in need of assistance, and Sosuke's own home features its own amateur radio, propane tank, water tank, and generator. To all the human characters, the flood is treated not as a disaster, but an inconvenience, one that has added wonder to their world. It's not a movie about antagonists or conflict, but about self-sufficient characters who meet challenges and adventures head-on.
That Ponyo is character, rather than plot, driven is at once the film's greatest strength and its chief weakness. Ponyo and Sosuke (voiced respectively by the youngest Cyrus child and the youngest Jonas brother, as if the families were somehow indentured to Disney) convey all the wonder, severity, and fearlessness of being five years old, making their post-diluvian adventure both believable and a delight to watch. And Tina Fey as Lisa, who happily indulges her son's mystical notions but has trouble coping with her fisherman husband's long absences at sea, is at once maternal dutiful and impulsive, maternal and prone to fits of childishness. She, and most of the other characters in Ponyo feel multi-faceted and alive as soon as they step on screen, and much of the film's humor is derived from our instant affection for them.
But, like any proper, hyperactive five year olds, our heroes are far more interested in exploring their new world than in sticking to a fairytale script. There are no puzzles for Ponyo and Sosuke to solve, no powerful beings they need to impress, no villains to outwit. Eventually, Sosuke must pass a test of love, although it isn't even as substantial a test as the one Chihiro must pass at the end of Spirited Away, and Sosuke has no way of knowing that Ponyo's very life hangs in the balance. Even Fujimoto who seemed like a possible antagonist to be swayed by Sosuke's own earnestness seems to change his tune on humanity rather abruptly, landing him more in the category of comic relief than imposing wizard. As a result, the first half of the movie feels like a promising set up for a story that never happens. Ponyo and Sosuke don't seem to mind though, content as they are to travel through their flooded town on a magical boat and name all the prehistoric fishes they see below.
But even with a weak story behind it, Ponyo proves Miyazaki is still a master animator, one whose vision and attention to detail may be unparalleled. The tsunami, with waves represented as giant, eager fish, is at once beautiful in its magical elements and terrifying for its very realistic power, and once Sosuke's city is submerged, Miyazaki shows us the underwater remnants of suburbia as enticingly tranquil, rather than as skeletons of human society. And he can add humor to a scene by simply with the apt placement of an octopus or crab in the background. It's certainly a film whose visual elements will demand repeated watchings, and a light enough tale to make those watchings enjoyable.