Ponyo (2008)

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“You can’t be busy – you’re five!!”

This, believe it or not, was the first Miyazaki movie I saw in theaters. Previously, I was never in a place to see them, or was never aware of when these movies actually hit US theaters. They tend to come and go quickly, and sometimes they’re not even wide released. This one was, though. Probably because it is one of Miyazaki’s more subdued movies: it’s more like Totoro or Kiki than Howl or Mononoke. It’s a family movie. So how does it rank? let’s take a look!

Ponyo is loosely based off of the story of the little mermaid. Our titular character, Ponyo (although her given name is Boomhilda) is a fish that lives in the ocean in a strange sub-like thing with her father, who is… sort of human? we’ll talk about him later. Anyway, she escapes and ends up getting her head stuck in a jar and is washed ashore, where she’s rescued by a little boy name Sosuke. She licks the cut on his hand he got from rescuing her and it heals quickly. Amazed, he puts her in a pail, names her Ponyo, and takes her to school to show off.

Eventually Ponyo’s father finds she is missing and sends his spirits of the ocean to retrieve her. They do, much to Sosuke’s dismay, but the damage is done. Ponyo wants to be human. Because she tasted human blood, she uses her magic to grow arms and legs. After escaping again and ruining some of her father’s things (she knocks some of his potions in a pot after he just explained that doing so would bring on a new Devonian era), she uses the magic brewing in the ocean to return to land and try to find Sosuke. They reunite, but there’s a problem – because of what she did to her father’s things, the ocean is rising and causing all sorts of problems to the village where Sosuke lives. His mother goes off to help the seniors at the senior center get to higher ground (she’s not worried about where they live because they’re on a cliff), but by morning she’s still not back, so Sosuke and Ponyo decide to go find her and the seniors. Ponyo uses her magic (it’s not as strong now and starting to take its toll) to make a toy boat bigger and they’re off.

Meanwhile, her father appeals to her mother, the Goddess of Mercy, for what to do with Ponyo. They decide that she must go through a test. She cannot be human and magic. They decide to test the boy’s love of her, and if he passes, she can remain human. If not, she will turn into sea foam.

The ending is… weird. well obviously he passes the test and Ponyo remains human, but… it’s weird. I still don’t know if I completely understand one part. But I won’t ruin it.

So that’s Ponyo. This movie has a lot of really great things going for it. The story is familiar to us, but I don’t know if I would have guessed it was based on the little mermaid. So many details are different, and the whole feel to the movie is much different. Instead of an angst-y teenager, we have a little girl no older than 5 years old. Sosuke is the same age. That in itself lends to a very different type of movie, and i think in this case, it really works. In fact, the pure childhood love and the relationship that Sosuke and Ponyo have are one of the major strengths in this movie, and it is worth watching just for that.

Although this movie is called “Ponyo,” I would actually argue that we have two protagonists, and almost that Sosuke is a bit more important. I’ll talk about Ponyo, but I want to talk about our little boy first. Sosuke is, in many ways, a typical little preschool or kindergarden boy. He gets excited about his pets, he makes up things about his fish that he insists is right, and he goes to school. But there are many things that make Sosuke unlike any other little boy i’ve ever met. He lives with his mother and his father is gone a lot because he works on a boat. Sosuke has to be the man of the house, and as such, there is a seriousness to him. He is almost more grown up than he arguably should be. He had to grow up quickly to help his mother while his father is gone. He’s all about following rules. He’s serious to the point where you wonder if he even knows how to have fun anymore. But in this kid’s heart is love; pure love. The things (in this case Ponyo the fish) he gets attached to are cared for with the utmost respect and important. He doesn’t even seem to understand the hatred that exists in people’s hearts. Not even the bitter woman Toki at his mother’s work.

Ponyo, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Sosuke. She’s naive, excited to the point where sometimes she’s almost manic. Everything is new to her and everything is a game. Everything is the most exciting thing she’s ever experienced. She also very quickly bonds to Sosuke as a fish, even showing a bit of jealousy when he tries to show her to another girl in his class. She’s cheeky, but like Sosuke, has a kind heart. She has a strange sense about her with her magic where she almost knows things before they happen. But to her, everything is fun and everything is a game. As the water rises and they head out on the boat, it could be a dire circumstance, but both she and Sosuke take it all in stride (to her its the most exciting adventure ever!).

I’m not going to lie – a big part of why I don’t like this movie is Ponyo. She’a almost TOO excited to the point where it’s annoying. I feel like they could have toned her down a bit and still gotten the point across that she’s the opposite of Sosuke and she’s teaching him things and he’s teaching her, blah blah blah. That being said, Sosuke to me is the movies saving feature. This is a kid I could watch forever. The two of them balance out perfectly. He’s down to earth and she’s off in her own little world. Together, the two of them do learn to be a bit like the other (sosuke more than Ponyo, but yeah…). You get the relationship between the two of them because it’s so pure and so harmless. It’s friendship. But to kids, friendship is pretty much the same as love, right? You’d do anything for the person.

While the movie really is focused on our two main characters, we have some others around that are also extremely important. First I want to talk about Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto. I haven’t really quite figured out what he is: he looks like a human and has to breathe air, but at the same time it always has to be wet where he walks. When he first tries to get Ponyo back, he walks on the grass spraying the water in front of him. I’m just going to settle by saying he’s some type of ocean spirit God. He’s in charge with keeping the balance in the ocean, although he hates humans and wishes he could return the ocean back to the devonian era when fish ruled the world. He’s not a villain at all, but in the eyes of Ponyo, he is. Fujimoto knows his eldest daughter is his strongest and most magical, but wishes to keep her where he can watch her. It’s the typical “doesn’t want his daughter to grow up” thing. But at the same time she’s only five – I can see his point. His character design is crazy and unique. He wears this amazing blue striped suit and his hair is bright red and all over the place. In the English dub he’s voiced by Liam Neeson, which i think was a nice choice to show that he’s NOT a villain at all.

The other important character is Sosuke’s mother, Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey). She’s upset that her husband isn’t coming home, but tries hard to provide for her son. At the same time – she’s kinda crazy. She’s not afraid to yell at people, drive like a crazy person through a tsunami, or completely abandon her 5 year old son. I don’t think she’d win any parenting awards, but at the same time, she doesn’t bat an eye when her son goes “Mom! Ponyo came back and she’s a little girl now.” I think I’d think my son was crazy if he said that. But not her. She totally goes along with all of this like it’s just another day. She’s a bit crazy, but you can tell she loves her son, and in their life, this is just how it is.

There are some other smaller characters, such as some of the seniors at the senior center Lisa works at, and Ponyo’s mother, a giant spirit Goddess of Mercy. She’s seen as a calm, all knowing beautiful woman. She’s smart, as its her idea to give Ponyo a test, and she understands much better the whole idea of love more than Fujimoto seems to.

The characters are all pretty good. They’re enjoyable and memorable, and like i said, this movie really focuses on Sosuke and Ponyo, and they are a joy to watch. If there has to be a weakness to this movie, I have to say its in the plot. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t understand what in the world was causing the flood and the crazy fish creatures until the 2nd or 3rd time I saw this. I didn’t catch the small conversation Fujimoto was having with himself when he was talking about the vials and the devonian era and what not. I don’t understand why he can’t just reverse it. Does it have something to do with Ponyo’s test? I would almost assume, because everything seems to get back to normal after that. The test in general is almost hard to pick out. Is it the whole trip in the toy boat? is it just the end part when he reaches the senior center?

Oh and yes, lets talk about that, because I still don’t really understand. I think i’m reading too much into this. So Sosuke and Ponyo take their boat trip and find Lisa’s car abandoned. They follow up the road and find the high park area with a bunch of wheelchairs but no seniors. No. they’re all still at the senior center, which is under the water but suspended. the people can breathe under there and Ponyo’s mother and father are there too. The seniors suddenly have more energy and are able to walk and breathe under water. The first time I saw this, I thought “oh my gosh, everyone is dead!!!” I mean seriously, it looks it. there’s stuff that’s said and stuff that is done (Toki tries not to go but is eventually drug under the water and the others tell her just let it go) that make you think that seriously these people are dead. WHAT? I don’t think they really are, but seriously. I don’t know. I really don’t. It weirds me out.

I really want to talk about some of the other things I love about this movie, and they may not be what you think. One, I LOVE the artwork and animation in this movie. It’s different than his others. The backgrounds are much softer, and look as if they were drawn with colored pencils or something like that. it lends really nicely to the whole “seaside” look. At the same time, the detail on the stuff under the ocean is incredible. the fish are beautiful. The creatures after Ponyo starts the devonian revolution are awesome. This is a really beautiful movie (as all his movies are – this one just strikes me because of the different medium).

Two, I LOVE that this movie is super scientific. It has a bit of fantasy to it with the Gods of the sea, but this movie is about balance and fish and biology. There’s names of prehistoric fish thrown out there by Sosuke. They talk about the devonian era. They talk about Biology. I Love this movie strictly because of this. (I was a biology major – rarely are there movies that incorporate this type of thing, and especially as well as this one does).

It’s Miyazaki, so of course there has to be an environmental message. We see a boat dredging the garbage out of the ocean, and as mentioned Fujimoto is very anti-human, mostly because they ruin the ocean with their trash. He kinda acts as Miyazaki’s vessel for his environmental message, but in this movie it is very subdued. Instead, this movie is all about showing the wonders of the environment as opposed to yelling at us for what we’ve done to it. It again is a much softer approach, and I feel as if there is just enough mention of it in a movie where the focus is on these little kids.

I don’t really have much more to say about this movie. It’s Miyazaki’s most family oriented film since Kiki, and it was a nice change of pace. I don’t believe it to be as good as his older stuff, but there are some things about this movie that are really magical, and I bet kids would love it. It does have many more scary elements than Kiki or Totoro, but I see that as just the evolution of our times. Apparently we can’t have kids movies without scaring the bejeezus out of them anymore (that’s a whole other can of worms I won’t open in this review). It’s definitely worth a watch if you have kids. It’s very enjoyable for adults too!

I give Ponyo a 3.5 out of 5.

Next up: The Secret World of Arriety (2010)

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