Cate Blanchett as Gran Mamare
Noah Cyrus as Ponyo
Matt Damon as Koichi
Tina Fey as Lisa
Frankie Jonas as Sosuke
Kurt Knutsson as The Newscaster
Cloris Leachman as Yoshie
Liam Neeson as Fujimoto
Jennessa Rose as Kumiko
Lily Tomlin as Toki
Betty White as Noriko
Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
While lighter and more child-like than many of Miyazaki’s previous films, “Ponyo” is a fresh new take on “The Little Mermaid” filled with imaginative animation and strong voice performances. Kids and adults alike will enjoy it.
In a small fishing village in Japan, 5-year-old Sosuke finds a goldfish stuck in a glass jar. After freeing it, he takes it home and names it Ponyo. But he soon discovers that Ponyo is more than she seems. She’s actually the daughter of sea goddess Gran Mamare and Fujimoto, a former human that magically creates sea life.
Now that Ponyo has had a taste of life on land, she’s determined to become human. Unfortunately, her wish turns the small fishing village upside down when her magical powers run amok. It’s soon up to Sosuke to restore balance to nature and determine if Ponyo will get her wish.
“Ponyo” is rated G.
Our family has enjoyed many of Hayao Miyazaki’s other films including “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Porco Rosso,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Castle in the Sky,” “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” and more. So when we heard “Ponyo” was coming out, the whole family wanted to see it.
“Ponyo” is much lighter than many of Miyazaki’s other films. There are minimal action scenes, there’s not really anything scary, and it has an overall more innocent feel than the other stories. After all, the heroes are only 5 years old. The characters face one potentially disastrous situation after another and they deal with it with all the casualness of walking to your mailbox. The city floods? No big deal. A giant wave chases your car? No problem. Giant fish with sharp teeth swimming around you? Aren’t they cute. I kept expecting the film to take a dark turn and it never did. It faced all the potentially scary situations with a childlike innocence that gave the overall film a fanciful feel. That’s something you dont see in many movies today.
But like the other Miyazaki films, “Ponyo” has amazing animation and imaginative visuals. We’re treated to beautiful scenes of undersea life. You see bizarre fish swimming among dozens of jellyfish. When the town floods, you see prehistoric fish cruising along streets and among buildings. It’s really cool stuff that will impress Miyazaki’s fans. It goes a long way towards proving the case that there’s still a place for 2-D, hand drawn animation.
I went into this movie knowing almost nothing about it. About halfway into the film I realized this was a new take on Hans Christian Andersen’s original story “The Little Mermaid.” (Notice I say the original, not Disney’s version.) It takes the familiar story and puts a decidedly Japanese take on it. It was cool to see the kids in the audience get a taste of Japanese culture. You see them cook noodles, communicate with fishing ships, and other things they typically don’t see in the US. But at the same time, there’s a lot they’re familiar with. The kids at the preschool fight, the mom argues with the dad, the kids play with toys. It’s simultaneously foreign and familiar.
The English voice cast was incredibly strong and were perfectly matched with their characters. Cate Blanchett is regal as Gran Mamare. Liam Neeson is the eccentric and somewhat befuddled Fujimoto who chases after Ponyo. Tina Fey is Lisa, the loving mom with a lead foot and a little temper. Lily Tomlin, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman are perfect as the little old ladies that Sosuke talks to. Then you have Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as Sosuke. It would be easy to dismiss them because of their relationships with their older and more famous siblings, but they do fantastic performances in this movie. Cyrus stands out when Ponyo gets her first taste of life as a human and repeatedly yells out, “HAM!!!!” Jonas finds the right balance between maturity and being a believable 5 year old. The result is a great pairing.
What Didn’t Work:
When Ponyo is in goldfish form… well, she doesn’t look like a goldfish. She looks like a baby in a nightgown. So it wasn’t until about 15 minutes into the film that Sosuke actually calls her a goldfish and you go, “Ah! So shes a fish!” Up until that point you have very little idea what she is or what’s going on. And what’s odd is everybody in the film immediately recognizes this mutant baby as a goldfish. Why do they not recognize it had a freakish human head?? Who am I to tell Hayao Miyazaki how to animate his films, but I think if Ponyo had actually been drawn as a fish it would have made more sense story-wise.
This film is also going to bore a lot of people. There are a lot of scenes of everyday life in it that take up a lot of running time. We see a lot of cooking, chatting, eating, etc. You know, the things you do every day, but without a fish/human girl. Some of this does get a little boring. But on the positive side, I kept expecting my kids to get antsy and bored in these scenes, but they didn’t. They sat utterly enthralled by even the most mundane stuff taking place on the screen. So did most of the kids in the theater. I suppose they were so wrapped up in Ponyo’s story that even her eating ham grabbed their attention.
I will mention that Lisa comes across as an incredibly irresponsible mother in this film. She drives like a maniac on narrow, hazardous streets. In one scene, she sees a wall of water heading towards her car and rather than staying where she’s safely at, she floors it and nearly gets swept away with the kid in the car. Having seen enough people die driving into floods in Texas, this seems like the height of stupidity. She also opts to leave her 5-year-old son home alone as the entire area is being flooded by an unnatural storm. Again, it’s another stupid parenting decision. There are a few other moments where she seems like an idiot, but you get the idea.
The only other thing I’d mention is an odd scene where a woman essentially explains breast-feeding to Ponyo. It kind of came out of nowhere and I’m not sure what purpose it served the story.
The Bottom Line:
“Ponyo” is a fun film for both adults and children. It’s not my favorite Miyazaki film, but it’s a refreshing expression of imagination and culture that you rarely see on the big screen these days.