Finally got the chance to see Ponyo Up On The Cliff (or, apparently, just Ponyo in the US release), and a few thoughts while I work up a full review. It’s coming to US theaters on August 14, and Disney already has a trailer out, with lots of high-profile voice talent. The simple story, based on a heavily Miyazaki-ized Little Mermaid, is about a young fish-girl who sneaks away from her mostly-human father and meets a boy, 5-year-old Sousuke. Sousuke lives with his mother atop a cliff, hence the title; his father is a sailor. A bit of adventure and a magical mishap later, and she’s transformed herself into a girl set on being with her new friend (romance is gently implied, and I believe the phrase boyfriend was used once, but they’re so young it doesn’t seem quite right to call it a romance). The same mishap also rather wreaked havoc on the sea, so it’s also up to them to set it right.
My basic impression is it’s a joyful little children’s movie with plenty of heart and the pretty much expected beautiful visuals. In the Ghibli age scale, it ranks at the extreme young end, even more youth-friendly than Totoro, if that’s even possible.
What sets it apart most is, interestingly, the visual style; the animation has a “softer” look that I think of as more characteristic of American animation. (Miyazaki apparently noted that he was specifically going for that more caricatured look—“deforume” in Japanese—in part because of the role of water in the story.) Not unappealing, though I freely admit I prefer more solid, sharper visuals myself.
The centerpiece scene is, without question, a fantastic sequence of the newly-human Ponyo racing ecstatically along the tops of waves-become-fish after Sousuke as his mother races up a winding road fleeing the angry storm. No surprise Disney included it in the trailer, as it is pure joy put to film. There is also a pretty, very Finding Nemo-esque opening sequence of Ponyo wandering amidst sea life, but the bulk of the interesting ocean visuals actually come later, in the sunny day after the magical storm where the surrounding town has been submerged beneath peaceful water. It’s pretty and a bit eerie at the same time.
And there’s the thing about the movie; there’s this side-plot about saving the world that has absolutely no business being in there. It feels like a complete afterthought—it’s only really mentioned toward the end—there’s no sense of drama whatsoever about it (the real drama—very mild—is Sousuke and Ponyo looking for Sousuke’s mother, who left during the storm to help out in town). Miyazaki obviously knows how to make a movie with no “big deal” to the plot—Totoro wasn’t really about anything—so I don’t understand why he felt this film needed something like that tacked on. Gave me flashbacks of the awkwardly-added war story in Howl’s Moving Castle, except in this case it really is just an afterthought, and feels like it.
There’s also no sense of tension whatsoever—for a movie full of apocalyptic scenes of the sea gone mad, it’s remarkably cheerful. Similarly, the adults don’t seem to give a second thought to everything going on around them—they all just cheerfully accept it (except for one curmudgeonly old lady, who barely counts). The latter I found myself sort of accepting on the assumption that the setting is Japan in the same way the world of Porco Rosso is the Adriatic—similar to the real one, but a touch more magical and a little wilder. I don’t know whether this was actually the intent or not—Akemi and I disagreed on that point—but I found the whole thing easier to get my mind around if I just assumed that it wasn’t supposed to be quite the real world.
Sousuke’s mom, Risa, is, however, a marvelous character—youthful, energetic, cheerful, and up until the too-accepting end, emotionally realistic. There’s a great little scene midway with her having a morse-code argument with her husband when his ship’s scheduled stop at home is cancelled. What was bizarre, though, was that Sousuke refers to her (and his dad) by name. This is even less common in Japan than the US, and made their relationship seem far more odd than it should have. Had she been a “friend” type of parent rather than a proper one, I’d maybe understand, but she wasn’t. It probably had something to do with the film’s message about responsibility (the slightly precocious Sousuke’s adoption of Ponyo and then quest to find his mother in the film’s third act are about the first steps into adult responsibility), but even so, weird.
That’s more or less it. Other disorganized thoughts: The film seems to be laid out in three clear acts; Ponyo exploring and discovering land, the storm and getting to know the family, and the two kids’ search for Sousuke’s mom. The scenes of the angry ocean at night, despite being largely cheerful, did capture some of the frightening power of the sea, at least for someone like myself who grew up a few hundred meters from the beach and able to hear the waves crashing from my bedroom during stormy weather. Ponyo’s wacky dad was fun, though as much as I like Liam Neeson I’m having trouble matching his voice to the character; we’ll see once it’s out. Joe Hisaishi’s score is characteristically beautiful, though the opening was unexpected—full on operatic aria. The end is a ridiculously catchy children’s song about Ponyo. It’ll be interesting to see what Disney does with those. Lastly, Heidi is in ways the most similar of the projects Miyazaki has had a hand in—similarly young protagonist and similar sense of joy about the little things in life, although much more realistic and dramatic when it decides to be.
Bottom line was I thoroughly enjoyed it, but found myself annoyed by the tacked-on plot and “dramatic” (but not) conclusion, as well as the rather too-cheerful supporting cast (contrast again with Totoro, which despite fundamentally being fun and games had that undercurrent of scary things you don’t quite understand). Basically it really is a kids’ movie, albeit such a well-made one even adults will enjoy it. This differs from what Miyazaki does so well (again, in Heidi, and also Kiki’s Delivery Service and Totoro), which is make kids’ films that are every bit as appealing to adults.
On a side note, I’m sure every mainstream English-press review of the movie will heap lavish praise on Ponyo, and it made a preposterous amount of money in Japan, but I just can’t call it as much of an unadulterated success as most of Miyazaki’s other films. Maybe I’m just being contrarian, but I think I’ve come to expect not just a very good movie from him, but something truly great, and Ponyo doesn’t quite deliver.