There’s no doubt that Hayao Miyazaki is a great visual artist; his earlier animated fantasies, “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” amply demonstrated the extraordinarily richness of his imagination and his eye for color and breathtaking compositions. His newest “Ponyo,” is equally stunning to look at, filled with amazing sequences that are all the more remarkable for being drawn and inked the old-fashioned way, by hand rather than through computer manipulation.
It’s when you begin thinking about the story that goes along with the pictures that doubts creep in. “Ponyo” is essentially an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale about a sea nymph who wants to become human for love of a landlubber prince, which was also the source of Disney’s own “Little Mermaid.” But given its bizarre imagery and offbeat attitude, it’s like “The Little Mermaid” on acid.
Ponyo (voiced in the English version by Noah Cyrus), the changeling here, is no Ariel; she’s a cute, blubbery red fish that becomes a wild and wacky little girl after falling for sweet five-year old human Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), who lives with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) on a cliff overlooking the harbor where his mostly-absent father Koichi (Matt Damon) works as a ship’s captain. Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) is an undersea wizard who, he explains at one point, used to be human but spends his time now maintaining the natural balance between land and sea and kvetching about how men are polluting the ocean. When Ponyo transforms, it apparently disturbs the terrestrial order and causes the moon to descend toward the earth, which raises the sea level and causes torrential rains and floods. The only way to restore normalcy and save the planet is through the intervention of Ponyo’s mother (Cate Blanchett), described at one point as the “mercy goddess,” and proof that Sosuke and Ponyo truly love one another.
What’s best about all this is the relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo, both in her original state and as a child experiencing life on land for the first time. There’s genuine sweetness and charm here. But there’s a good deal of weirdness, too. The business involving Fujimoto and the sea goddess called Guranmamere has the same feel of impenetrable myth that permeated “Mononoke” and “Spirited Away.”
And what’s to be made of the character of Lisa? She’s presented as a loving mother, but not only drives her little car maniacally around the winding mountain roads with the boy not even seat-belted, and on one occasion insists on plowing through a flood that could wash their car away in a flash—apparently just because she wants to get home. Then, because she decides to get back to the nursing home where she works to check up on the gaggle of colorful old women there, she leaves her five-year old son alone at home for the night, accompanied only by his new friend Ponyo, who’s even less mature than he is.
As if that weren’t enough, what about the extended scene in which Sosuke comes upon his mother’s abandoned car and thinks she’s dead? It’s a “Bambi’s mom’s been shot” moment, no doubt—and just as potentially traumatic for kids. Not to mention the fact that another major plot point has Sosuke playing about with candles and matches. Young viewers may also inquire about the meaning of the conversation when a mother talks to Sosuke and Ponyo about eating to make milk for her baby.
Of course, such stuff may simply escape the notice of the children at whom Disney is aiming “Ponyo,” who will certainly be as enchanted by the images as their elders. But parents should be aware of it. And of the reality that, like all of Miyazaki’s films, this one—despite centering on children—isn’t really made for them.
And as far as adults are concerned, I continue to feel that “Howl’s Moving Castle” is the real gem among the director’s pictures, more coherent and accessible than the others but no less entrancing. As for “Ponyo,” it’s visually beguiling, and that more than makes up for the strangeness.