Review: Ponyo [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2009)
Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo (the Americanized English version) is delightful, a classic fairy tale in the tradition of "The Little Mermaid," with much more to offer than just a familiar take on a folk tale. It is visually spectacular and lots of fun.
The film starts with a stunning underwater sequence in which we see Ponyo (voice of Noah Cyrus) being "born" and hitching a ride to the surface of the ocean with a compliant jellyfish. I put "born" in quotations because Ponyo is something between a Dr. Moreau-like genetic experiment, the result of a magical spell by an evil wizard, and a mermaid-mutant. At first she looks like an embryonic person without a mouth, in a red blanket. This sequence is a pure, beautiful dream, a meditation on the origin of life in Earth's oceans.
But when Sosuke (voice of Frankie Jonas), a little boy who lives in a house set on a cliff near the ocean, finds Ponyo, he immediately calls her a "goldfish." She looks nothing like a goldfish, but everybody takes this seriously until a senior citizen (voiced by Lily Tomlin) at his grandmother's retirement home points out that she has a human-like face, and immediately predicts tsunamis to follow this strange omen.
Meanwhile, Ponyo gets a taste of human food from Sosuke's sandwich, and human blood when she licks a cut on his hand, healing the wound and also setting in motion a magical crisis, as her "father," the evil wizard (voiced by Liam Neeson) attempts to find her and bring her back underwater to figure in his plans to eliminate humankind.
Ponyo is not just a random strange creature, you see, but a sort of naiad-fairy born of the wizard and the Goddess of the Ocean. She can work magic, alone or in conjunction with her younger identical sisters, and the wizard feels he needs her to help set up a new try at evolution, with less or less annoying humans apparently the intended result.
It's hard to Americanize Miyazaki films; they're Japanese, heart and soul. But this attempt is the most successful I've seen so far (though, admittedly, I've only seen a few of his films). The dialogue has been adapted quite naturally, and lightly, humorously. The voice talents are excellent, especially Betty White and Tomlin as Sosuke's grandmother and a resident at his grandmother's senior home, Tina Fey as Sosuke's mother, and, most of all, Frankie Jonas as Sosuke. Jonas is very Charlie Brown-like in his vocals, and this resonates, as Sosuke wears an orange shirt and black shorts, is naturally curious and talkative, and at first keeps Ponyo as a pet and sees her as a pet and his special responsibility, not unlike Charlie Brown and Snoopy--and of course "Ponyo" is just about an anagram for "Snoopy." Ponyo also displays a Snoopy-like exuberance and outsize personality as she changes from Sosuke's pet to his magical friend.
There are some things that just won't translate, however. A Miyazaki film is not a Disney film, and the strangeness of Ponyo as a character is marked. She's a very Japanese kind of fairy, magical, yes, but not nearly as cuddly as Tinkerbell or Ariel. In fact, her nonchalance and single-mindedness are a little bit frightening, and it doesn't exactly help that she keeps changing from a little girl to a sort of a four-legged chicken monster, or that she often seems to die or hibernate for long periods of time. Her strong wish to be human, and to stay with Sosuke, occasion a crisis in nature which is lovely to behold, but really kind of scary. The crashing, roiling, animate waves become characters in themselves, out of proportion with the rest of the film's art and genuinely destructive.
This is truly a film that animation and fairy-tale fans of any age can enjoy together. It has a logic and a sense of magic that feel unique and shake up expectations one might have for an all-American animated or children's film. It's quite gorgeous.
There are also some crazy funny "Ponyo" songs over the end credits, so you can stay and laugh if you'd like. Some kids in the showing I took in got a giggle from the rhyming of "fishy in the sea" with "little girl with a round tum-my."
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