When I hear most people talk about good animation, I often hear references to two of the big film animation giants of today, Pixar or Dreamworks, with the occasional reference to the classic Disney Animation films of the ’90s. But it so often feels like the general public forgets Studio Ghibli and one of the most unforgettable minds in the industry, Hayao Miyazaki. While the name may be unfamiliar, the films he worked on shouldn’t be. He’s probably best known for My Neighbor Totoro, a more kid-centric piece that may not appeal to older audiences, but he’s been involved in the creation of over 25 films, directing the likes of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke, each with their own distinct styles, ideas and commentaries on life as a whole. And while Ponyo isn’t his best work, it helps to remind me of what a brilliant individual helped bring such a simple idea to life in a way no one else could.
Ponyo, while featuring a character by the same name, stars an average young boy, Sosuke, who struggles with the fact that he has no friends due to his silly personality. So when he stumbles upon a fish with a strangely human face, he quickly becomes attached, calling her Ponyo. Little does he know that the fish is actually the daughter of a sea wizard who’s escaped her father’s controlling grasp in hopes of experiencing the world for herself. With a core cast of fun characters, including Sosuke’s scatterbrained mother and the elderly patrons she cares for, the unlikely pair show viewers a world from a viewpoint most have left behind in their youth.
Having been adapted for American audiences after the fact, many well-known voices can be heard throughout the film. Tina Fey and Matt Damon take on the roles of Sosuke’s parents, Betty White is one of the elders who has taken a liking to Sosuke and Liam Neeson portrays Ponyo’s overprotective father. Overall, the voice acting is top-notch and believable, although I’m unsure how I feel about Neeson’s casting, as his character has a more eccentric appearance than Neeson’s voice presents. The characters themselves are a joy to experience, with distinct points of view and fun quirks that bring them alive. While some are mystical in nature, they all feel human and real in how they react to the situations they find themselves in, beyond some exposition.
With the plot being so simple, it can be hard to imagine the film being incredibly engaging by some. This concept, however, is what makes many of Miyazaki’s films stand out from the rest, as he often takes mundane or ordinary experiences and make them more interesting and life-like, often treading along the edges of the slice-of-life genre. This coupled with the aforementioned characterization makes for a unique look at how kids deal with love, loss, the people around them, neglectful or distant parents and the hopes and dreams they cling to. And while the adults are perhaps less complex, they too have their own struggles and developments they work through.
I can’t help but praise the incredible art that can be seen in any Miyazaki film, something that makes abundant sense when considering that the director oversaw the making of almost every panel that made it to the ultimate piece. The vibrant colors and imaginative locales make the average Japanese town light up with an energy rarely found in most films today. Every shot is a work of art in its own right, worth appreciating both in and after the moment.
As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t Miyazaki’s best work, and this is largely because it is one of his simpler and youth-focused films. Much like Totoro, the movie rarely shifts from the perspective of the children, and thus retains a similar mentality when telling the story. This is by no means bad, but it can reduce the depth of some scenes, as the themes and ideas reflect the age being presented. Additionally, there are large stretches of the film that feel like they lack various moments of pause, a technique that Miyazaki often uses to reinforce the reality of what may be happening to a character and how they’re emotionally affected.
That being said, an average Miyazaki movie is leagues ahead of most other animated works on the market, as Ponyo proves in spades. If you haven’t had the chance to see it yet, I’d recommend checking it out, especially if you have younger kids.