“Ponyo” off a cliff

ponyo_posterWith Studio Ghibli’s latest film to be released in America, The Secret World of Arrietty, breaking box-office records for Ghibli films, I’m reminded of director Hayao Miyazaki’s 2009 film, Ponyo, Ghibli’s former top-grossing champion.

Being that Miyazaki is a perennial favorite of mine and my fiance, we had eagerly attended the early preview screening of Ponyo in Ward Theaters with high hopes. Afterward, however, we came out feeling, “…Huh?”

Admittedly, we went in with absolutely no knowledge of anything about the movie aside from the fact that it was done by Miyazaki and that its original English name when advertised in Japan was “Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea.” The house lights went black, the familiar Totoro logo of Studio Ghibli came up, and then … we seemed to stray into some other world — a fantasy world, granted, but it was something that decidedly was not Miyazaki.

For those who don’t know the storyline, Ponyo is about a boy named Sosuke who discovers a strange ocean creature whom he names Ponyo, who has the body of a fish but the head of girl. Ponyo in her ocean homeland was always a curious girl, which is how she ended up stranded ashore to be found by Sosuke. After coming into contact with humans, Ponyo longs to be one of them, but her wizard father, Fujimoto, refuses to let her go. The clash between father and daughter eventually causes the oceans to swallow the land and threatens to destroy Sosuke’s world, and Fujimoto is forced to give in — and risk having his daughter learn of the pain of rejection, unless Sosuke can pass a test that Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of mercy, crafts for him.

Sosuke and Ponyo. (Photo courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Sosuke and Ponyo prepare for their magical boat ride. (Photo courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

The opening scenes used a simplistic animation that I would expect of a PBS toddler’s cartoon. The bright multitude of colors used to illustrate the fanciful undersea creatures gave even more credence to this impression.

Once we hit land, it seemed the old Miyazaki was back, with carefully detailed homes and cliffs and landscapes similar to another of his films, Kiki’s Delivery Service — but for only a moment. Then again we reverted back, and again the animation was very different from his previous films, with many of the backgrounds seemingly done with colored pencils, creating a soft, ethereal atmosphere that nevertheless seemed far less magical than the more solid scenery that normally dominates his films.

The one thing that did remain throughout was Miyazaki’s penchant for realistic movements and his attention to the small things that people do. The way Sosuke carefully crawled under the gate, making sure not to drop the bucket holding Ponyo; the way Sosuke’s mom Lisa unlocked the house door and hauled in the groceries after her; the way Fujimoto carefully protected and poured the life-giving elixirs — they weren’t the movements of everyday cartoon characters given motion by an animator bent merely on making them do one thing as fast as possible as smoothly as possible, but rather by a master artist skilled at depicting the many actions that one simple maneuver by a human often requires.

Sosuke's dad, Koichi, is often busy at sea and can't visit his wife and son as much as he'd like. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Sosuke's dad, Koichi, is often busy at sea and can't visit his wife and son as much as he'd like. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

Still, in many ways, “simple” was the theme of the movie. Unlike the numerous trials that Miyazaki’s past heroes and heroines had to endure, all Sosuke had to do was proclaim his love for Ponyo and his willingness to accept her for who she was — an extremely easy thing for a 5-year-old to promise without understanding the full import of his words. And then came the goddess’ simple declaration that “The balance of nature is restored!” and now we’ll all go live happily ever after — never mind the floodwaters that are still covering the town and that don’t seem to have any inclination to go away any time soon.

All of this combined to create such an anticlimactic ending that both I and my movie-going companion were struck dumb.

This may be a kids’ movie, but even children enjoy experiencing the awe of something as impressive as a water goddess’ magic restoring the land to what it was — an oft-used ending that may be cheesy and cliched to us adults but is usually pretty awesome-looking on the big screen, especially in the hands of an animator such as Miyazaki. And unfortunately, such a climactic scene didn’t happen in this movie.

Gran Mamare, the goddess of mercy, visits with Fujimoto to talk about Ponyo. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)
Gran Mamare, the goddess of mercy, visits with Fujimoto to talk about Ponyo. (Courtesy Nibariki-GNDHDDT)

But I came into Ponyo having certain expectations. And contrary to those expectations, there was no epic struggle, there was no character-building transformation. The usual moral message was there — sort of — but then was never followed up on and then fizzled out. In the end, there was just a selfish fish-girl whose longing to stay with the first human she came in contact with was such that she didn’t care whom she hurt in the process, leading to the destruction of an entire town. She’s the bratty child who ended up getting her way through manipulation and tantrums. After all is said and done, does Ponyo realize what her actions caused? Does she care?

For that matter, does ANYONE care? Lisa’s nonchalant acceptance of: 1. a girl who appears out of nowhere; 2. her son’s crazy-sounding explanation of how this girl came to be; and 3. the aforementioned girl’s equally crazy-sounding description of her parents and home is so unbelievable that one can’t help but think that Lisa’s missing a few screws. Face it, no one is THAT magnanimous. How can you not be at the least annoyed at this girl whose single-minded desire endangered not only, oh, your entire town, friends, and all you hold dear, not to mention your sailor husband whose fate out on the stormy high seas is unknown? “Annoyed” would probably be the BEST of my reactions.

Maybe I’m just being too much of an adult. Too much of a Western adult, who craves some kind of logic and resolution and closure. But even that aside, even after suspending disbelief, Ponyo just wasn’t up to Miyazaki’s par.

As a children’s fairytale, Ponyo did deliver. Perhaps that’s what it was meant to be all along. But as a Miyazaki film…somehow, it was missing his usual magic.

3 thoughts on ““Ponyo” off a cliff”

  1. This review is right on. I’ve been watching Ghibli films since I saw Nausicaa (English ver.) as a toddler, and my wife (being Japanese) was watching them even earlier. We were both underwhelmed and confused by Ponyo. Compared to, say, “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (Spirited Away), the film felt meandering and pointless [though IIRC both resolve by deus ex machina].

    Similarities to Majo no Takkyuubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service) merely tease at the emotional complexity and wonderment of that “girl out of water” story. I can’t even begin to think how the bizarre Ponyo might be fixed without scrapping the lot of it. There is not even the tension of life or death drama (Mononoke-hime) or a sick relative (Tonari no Totoro) to interest viewers. We are all supposed to have toddler brains and be entertained by the pretty colors. 😦

  2. @AniMatsuri: The biggest difference is in the personalities between Ponyo and Ariel. There’s a huge lack of self-sacrifice on Ponyo’s part, whereas Ariel was willing to give up a big part of herself, AND she actually cared about what happened to her father and about saving her friends when it came down to it. Ponyo comes off as the oppressed child longing to get away from an overbearing father, and we get NO indication that deep down she gives a hoot about her dad or siblings.

    The age of the main characters also necessarily makes the interactions very different. “Little Mermaid” was always a romantic love story; “Ponyo” seemed to be trying to give a message about friendship and accepting others for who they really are, but it wasn’t done in a way that made you feel very much sympathy for Ponyo and Sosuke. In my opinion, those two were FAR too young to give much of a message that they themselves truly understood and could take to heart.

    The plot in “Ponyo” was also sketchy; the whole thing about “if Ponyo becomes human, that will change the balance of nature” seemed to have been stuck in there just to try to create some artificial tension aside from the fact that father and daughter were just butting heads, like most any parent/child relationship. There is nothing that said why exactly Ponyo was special or why she would upset the balance.

    Plus, the songs were FAR better in “Little Mermaid.” ^_~

Comments are closed.