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Visually Dazzling Ponyo Worth a Peek

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 26, 2010
Visually Dazzling <i>Ponyo</i> Worth a Peek

DVD Release Date:  December 8, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  August 14, 2009
Rating:  G
Genre:  Animation, Fantasy, Kids/Family
Run Time:  100 min.
Director:  Hiyao Miyazaki
Actors:  Voices of Frankie Jonas, Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Jennessa Rose, Betty White, Lily Tomlin

Hiyao Miyazaki has been called "the Walt Disney of Japan," and his animated films have a fan in John Lasseter, the force behind Pixar. His advocacy of Miyazaki's work has, to a large degree, been responsible for the distribution by Walt Disney Co. of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away (winner of the Best Animated Film Oscar in 2003) and now Ponyo, all produced in Japan by Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki is credited as the writer of Ponyo, but this tale of a goldfish who wants to become human is, in the words of Disney's press materials, "inspired by" Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. To the basics of Andersen's tale, Miyazaki has added his signature themes about concern for the earth and the delicate balance between man and nature. Ponyo also includes some distinctive, dazzling visuals—another Miyazaki trademark—but its magical moments don't ultimately overcome weaknesses in the storytelling during the film's second half.

Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) is a 5-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Lisa (Tina Fey), in a seaside home where they await the return of Sosuke's father, Koichi (Matt Damon). He's a shipworker who communicates with his wife via light signals between ship and shore, but his near-constant absence from home means that Sosuke is effectively being raised by a single, stressed out parent. "Bug off," the lonely, frustrated wife signals her apologetic husband after he informs her that he won't be returning home as planned.

When goldfish Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) meets Sosuke, she gets a taste for being human, infuriating her blustering father (Liam Neeson), who sees humans as a threat to ocean life. His mission is to keep the sea in balance, and "to serve the earth" rather than be human himself. He wants his daughter to remain "innocent and pure forever," but Ponyo has other ideas. She leaves her father and siblings behind, takes on human form and insinuates her way into Sosuke's life.

The plot goes haywire during the second half of the story. Sosuke's mother leaves him to fend for himself while she travels in stormy weather to the nursing home where she works, and Sosuke's love is put to a test that has potentially fatal consequences for Ponyo. But what was clear in Disney's earlier adaptation of The Little Mermaid is not so well spelled out in Ponyo. The Japanese film is likely to lose viewers who aren't familiar with Andersen's original story and even some of those who know the story but can't keep up with Miyazaki's twists and additions—primarily a message about how the misuse of power can alter the tides, threatening life above and below the sea.
But the story does an even poorer job of explaining more fundamental questions, such as what, exactly, the connection is between Ponyo tasting Sosuke's blood (his finger is cut when he first encounters Ponyo) and her desire to become human. Sosuke's test of love is raised, then dropped for several minutes while the film pursues subplots that are less central to the story.

On the plus side, the film's visuals are often ravishing. The first images of Ponyo's undersea world are a magical mystery tour, almost psychedelic in their color scheme. The waves and water become their own character in the film, taking on a menacing life of their own. It's too bad that some of those scenes may be too intense for the youngest of viewers, who otherwise are the most likely to be charmed by the title character and her friendship with the young Sosuke.

Ponyo has been dubbed into English, with several prominent actors providing voices, and glosses reportedly have been made to the story to help it appeal to American audiences. The film's mystical streak—a goddess is a major character—appears to be intact, however, and that may be off-putting to some viewers—and even frightening to the youngest audience members. Most children, however, will be captivated by much of Ponyo, and more forgiving than adults of the inexplicable plot elements that keep Ponyo from being the classic it might otherwise have been.

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  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  None.
  • Language/Profanity:  None; the closest occurrence is when an angry wife tells her husband to "bug off"
  • Violence/Threats:  Sea waves appear to have eyes, and threaten a young boy several times; a boy is pulled from deep water; a storm threatens a mother and child; mother catches her son's arm before heavy winds and rain nearly blow him into the ocean; Sosuke's love must be tested, and if he fails, Ponyo will be turned into sea foam.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None.
  • Marriage/Parenting:  Sosuke's mother waits for her husband to return from the sea and gets frustrated with him when he extends his stay; the mother leaves Sosuke to be "the man of the house," justifying her decision by explaining that he's 5 years old.
  • Religion/Magic:  A sailor claims to have a seen a goddess, then prays with another man; Ponyo heals a baby's sickness.