Critics loved Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, and said its fantastical images, total lack of CGI, and unconventional female lead (described as a mix of Ralph Wiggum and the Tasmanian Devil) make it this summer's best animated film.
The movie, which opens today, was written and directed by Miyazaki and animated by hand. The film was released in Japan last summer and won the Japanese Academy's award for Best Animation Film and Best Score. The story is about a magical goldfish named Ponyo (voice by Noah Cyrus, Miley's little sister) who wants to be a human girl and is based loosely on The Little Mermaid. Ponyo runs away from her home in the sea and washes up on shore trapped in a glass bottle. Five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger brother of the Jonas Brothers) frees her and cuts himself on the glass. Ponyo uses her magical powers to heal him, but when she tastes his blood she starts becoming human. Ponyo goes home with Sosuke, who lives with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey). This upsets the natural balance and Ponyo's sea god father (Liam Neeson) comes to bring his daughter back home.
Reviewers say Ponyo is more geared toward children than some of Miyazaki's recent films like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, but has powerful themes, an imaganative plot, and intricate animation that adults will appreciate as well. Disney is distributing the film in America (which explains the presence of Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas) but critics claim that the American voice actors are talented and well-cast. The only complaint? That the film just ends, without much of a climax. But every critic agreed that the film lives up to Miyazaki's previous work and is a must-see for fans of the director, animation, or just good filmmaking. Below, check out the reviews for Ponyo.
There is a word to describe Ponyo, and that word is magical. This poetic, visually breathtaking work by the greatest of all animators has such deep charm that adults and children will both be touched. It's wonderful and never even seems to try: It unfolds fantastically.
Paralleling this is Miyazaki's intuitive understanding of magic and how best to use it on screen. It's not just that there are supernatural doings in Ponyo, including all-powerful wizards and goddesses who control the heavens and the seas, it's the film's notion that magic haunts the edges of the everyday, mixing with the ordinary in ways we don't always take the time to notice.
And Ponyo? She's the kind of bizarre character who would never appear in an American children's movie but whom American children will find instantly hilarious. Ponyo also will appeal to parents exhausted by the constant Disney-led drumbeat of Princessdom. Unlike her clear antecedent, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Ponyo doesn't care how she looks, nor is she respectful or deferential. She doesn't wait for true love to give her a voice or make her human, but busts out of the undersea kingdom on her own. Wreaking havoc and spouting non sequiturs, she comes off as a mix of Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons and the Tasmanian Devil.
To watch the image of a young girl burbling with laughter as she runs atop cresting waves in Ponyo is to be reminded of how infrequently the movies seem to express joy now, how rarely they sweep us up in ecstatic reverie. It's a giddy, touchingly resonant image of freedom - the animated girl is as liberated from shoes as from the laws of nature - one that the director Hayao Miyazaki lingers on only as long as it takes your eyes and mind to hold it close, love it deeply and immediately regret its impermanence...
It's hard not to think of the wizard, particularly when he gently and very cleanly curses the human world and its harmful ways, as something of a Miyazaki self-portrait. Whatever the case, like his creator, Fujimoto can't keep Ponyo under wraps: she springs from the sea, exploding into the world with a reckless, infectious, almost calamitous exuberance.
A contemporary Japanese backdrop brings the Andersen story closer home, while the total absence of CGI work — the whole film is drawn by animators — heightens the film's childlike charm. In Miyazaki's fertile imagination, the ordinary and magical worlds blend into each other; both are full of marvels. Perhaps his most imaginative representation is the sea itself, which he transforms into a living, pulsating character. On another level, the sea can represent the subconscious mind bursting onto the land above. The tender mother-child relationship of Sosuke and Lisa, and Ponyo and her radiant Mother of the Sea, strikes a deep chord of universality.
Miyazaki has inadvertently dished up yet another challenge to the universe of hand-drawn toons: Even more so than his previous outings, the film confounds traditional notions of anthropomorphism, dwelling especially on the transformative properties of water. Far more upbeat than much of Miyazaki's oeuvre, limned in bright pastel colors where even destruction is golden, Ponyo possesses an almost demonic childish energy and a delight in form stronger than reason or narrative. Even Armageddon, as loosed by Ponyo and imagined by Miyazaki, is a wondrous place where half-armored prehistoric fish glide alongside their more evolved cousins, submerged trees form mysterious swamplands and a "ship graveyard" of foundering vessels appears in the distance, like a fairyland of lights stretched out upon the water.
Miyazaki's infinitely imaginative, lovingly rendered visions tickle the imagination in a way CGI cartoons can't. Ponyois stuffed with the sort of indelible, fantastical images for which Miyazaki is revered: Ponyo running atop churning waves that look like giant fish; a city flooded by a micro typhoon as prehistoric creatures swim through its streets; barges and oil rigs piled high after the ocean level rises, and the moon begins to pull closer to Earth. Even by Miyazaki standards, Ponyomakes less narrative sense than it should, and the pat ending is a bit of a letdown: The story doesn't reach a climax; it just stops. But the flat finale doesn't take away from the hypnotic spell the rest of the movie can weave on 5- or 50-year-olds.
The fact that a child can grasp its logic doesn't mean that Ponyois a kids' movie-in fact, many of its themes and images may be too intense for younger children. It means that Miyazaki is a great artist, able to tap into a part of his mind that most grownups (including artists) have long ago closed off. Ponyo is baroquely and extravagantly weird, yet its story has a mythic simplicity: Boy meets fish-girl, boy loses fish-girl, fish-girl risks upsetting the cosmic order to get boy back. It's Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, with less sacrificial suffering and more ramen noodles.
When you see Ponyo- and you must - be prepared for a movie that doesn't abide by Hollywood rules. This is a tale for children (yes, of all ages) who are ready to be coaxed into another world through simple words and luscious pictures. Miyazaki knows the secret language of children; he dives deep into the pool of childhood dreams and fears and, through his animagic, takes children down to where they can breathe, and feel, and be free.
Nothing in Miyazaki's universe ever stops transforming: There are spirits tucked away, ready to turn what you think you see-the visible world-into something else. Miyazaki proves why two-dimensional hand-drawn animation will always be more thrilling than 3-D: It doesn't need to pretend to be bound by the laws of physics. The borders between flesh and spirit are infinitely porous. Before I get too high-flown, let me say that Ponyois unsullied by Disney's English-language casting of Miley Cyrus's little sister as Ponyo and a Jonas brother as Sosuke-although Noah Lindsey Cyrus is a tad shrill. But Liam Neeson has gravely splendid pipes as Ponyo's father, a once-human wizard who lives underwater and despises humankind for polluting the planet.
The English-language translation is better than most, with Tina Fey adding a modern spunkiness as Sosuke's mother. Liam Neeson is also perfectly cast as Ponyo's father, and Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman and Betty White are as warm as a cup of cocoa playing three women at a senior home.
While the story is modeled on a traditional fairy tale and a traditional love story, it's more primal than it looks. In keeping with Miyazaki's usual motifs, Ponyo's attachment to Sosuke is an unthinking force, as avid and single-minded as the decapitated forest spirit in Princess Mononoke, or the crazed, murderous Ohmu in Miyazaki's Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind. Miyazaki never lets viewers forget that Ponyo is human-shaped but not actually human; her shape shifts and dissolves back toward fish-dom whenever she exerts her magical powers. In this and other things, the story operates on a fluid dream-logic, or the storytelling logic of a very small child: Events melt into each other without urgency, and a simple act like making and drinking tea is treated with the same complacent, wondrous gravity as magic that calls wave-monsters into being. Even so, older kids and even adults are unlikely to get bored, thanks to the story's unforced sweetness, giddy highs, and stunningly beautiful visuals. Even in the unspoiled Devonian, real life never looked this good.