Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/25/09 04:54:30

"It's 100 minutes of pure joy."
5 stars (Awesome)

A funny thing happened while I was watching Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo.” I found myself leaning forward, yearning to move ever so more closely to the screen, eager to soak up as much of the visual wonder barely contained within the frame as possible, while simultaneously becoming so taken in by the story that of course I needed to move a few inches forward. That’s when I heard my wife giggle just a little; looking over, I saw that my daughter was doing the same thing, hunched forward, eyes happily poring over every inch of the picture.

Miyazaki is a master of animation, and with “Ponyo” we are reminded that he is also a master of children’s storytelling. It’s great fun to imagine this old Japanese man, beard and all, knowing so perfectly how children think and behave and dream, and there’s not a moment in “Ponyo” when its young protagonists act as anything other than clever kids. Yes, clever: Miyazaki refuses to talk down to his young viewers, and he refuses to paint them as faux-precocious one-liner machines, the way kids often act in Hollywood films. (Perhaps it’s telling that the Russell of “Up” also behaves in so wonderfully a natural manner; the Pixar gang has long held Miyazaki as their role model.)

In “Ponyo,” we’re introduced to five-year-old Sosuke, who knows much of independence. Like all five-year-olds, Sosuke is the master of his small world, free to roam from school to his mom’s work next door; his mother treats him with great maturity, understanding that with dad gone off to sea once more, they’re in this mess together. When, midway through the film, Sosuke is required to embark on a grand adventure, we never fear for his safety, knowing he’s well up to the task. (No adults ever question his independence during this journey, and rightly so.)

But “Ponyo” is not merely for children. Like all great fantasy storytelling, it’s instantly accessible to grown-ups, too, reminding us of the love of fairy tales we’ve never really left behind. And Miyazaki’s screenplay is boldly confident in the facts of its universe, trusting the audience to never doubt such fantastical elements as a wizard who lives in the sea, or a queen of the ocean, or a fish with the face of a human girl. To Miyazaki, and to us, these elements need no explanation. They simply are.

The story is inspired - quite loosely - from Hans Christen Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” but don’t go expecting singing princesses and Disneyfied romance. Here, Ponyo is a curious fish, young daughter of Fujimoto, a man who works his magic in keeping the delicate balance of nature, no matter how hard humanity seems to be trying to destroy it. When Ponyo gets lost and is rescued by Sosuke, the young resident of a seaside village, they become great friends, and Ponyo decides she wants to be human.

To do so, she must first sneak in to her father’s secret pantry of magical potions, which she does with great certainty - all the while unaware that she’s unleashing powers beyond her control. She becomes human, and is granted a few extra magical gifts as well, but the whole thing’s gone and upset nature, and soon the village is flooded and ships meet danger as water levels rise so high they almost touch the moon.

Miyazaki includes so many elements that to describe them all would be to suggest something other than the story’s inherent minimalism. “Ponyo” is a simple story embellished with such great detail, yet the detail never overwhelms that simplicity. Sosuke is ultimately heading toward a great test, but, in pure Miyazaki pureness, there are no physical demands, no Herculean efforts to prove. Instead, we’re shown a mere test of love that’s relatable to any viewer, of any age.

The film allows the thrills and the warmth of the story to build on their own terms, preferring to win us over with wonderful characters; Miyazaki gives a good several minutes to an argument between Sosuke’s parents, a feud that hides great love, and while this does nothing for the story, it endears ever more to this family. There’s not a character in here we don’t eventually adore - not even the mysterious Fujimoto or the bitter old lady who lives at the nursing home where Lisa works, who both win us over, but on their own terms, and at their own pace. How smart, bold, and self-assured it is for Miyazaki to refuse this movie a true villain, allowing the conflict instead to rise from good people who might just want different things.

And on top of all of this, Miyazaki then delivers his trademark perfect animation, turning the screen into his great canvas, each frame bursting with sights and wonders that could only come from the grandest of imaginations. Sosuke’s village has a storybook feel, warm and inviting, while the sea is a world all its own. Fujimoto’s magic allows him to create creatures that become water, or perhaps he makes water become creatures; either way, it’s outstanding stuff. By the time the moon and the sea meet and the ocean goddess reveals herself, we’re held in silent wonder.

I notice now that I’ve only reviewed one other Miyazaki work on this site, and that was “Spirited Away,” the much-beloved 2002 film much un-beloved by me. I found that film to be a rare misfire; his other efforts are such rich marvels that he’s in that rare category of filmmaker where picking a single masterpiece becomes the start of great debate. “Ponyo” is a wonderful example of everything the master does right, enchanting us with the most lavish of art and the most magical of stories. Lately, when I want to smile, I just think of “Ponyo.”

Note: Like most American critics, I’m writing this after seeing the dubbed Stateside release. The English dub is better than expected, featuring some great voice work by the likes of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin. The main roles are given to Frankie Jonas and Noah Cyrus, young stars most likely cast due to their famous last names; both are quite capable in their performances. The whole thing’s handled with great care by Disney, whose only mistake is to include an ear-splitting kiddie tune over the closing credits.

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