Gaké no Ué no Ponyo is like something you might get if you mashed My Neighbor Totoro into The Little Mermaid, then put the entire project in the hands of a
five-year-old animation prodigy. The film is simultaneously stunning in its beauty and endearing in its simplicity, unrestrained enthusiasm walking the edge between inspired brilliance and
In the opening sequences, literally thousands of individually animated fish swirl across the screen—a task Western animators wouldn't touch without a room full of computers. And yet the film's omnipresent water is defined by hard lines that seem to have been drawn in with crayons and coloured by pastels. In style and content, this is clearly a children's fantasy, and yet it isn't.
Remarkably, Miyazaki has yet again achieved what he created in Totoro: a film that draws the viewer indelibly into the world of children, reminding us of the time when every discovery was unique, every possession precious, and the agony of loss crouched behind every well-meaning mistake. Perhaps this is why the film has appealed more to adults than to children in Japan: children still live in this world. They need no such reminders.
Sousuke, a five-year-old who retrieves the eponymous Ponyo from the ocean, is not another Pinocchio-like screen caricature. He is a real boy. He is intelligent yet careless, deeply conscientious but distracted by impulse. He grounds us in a world that wavers between the real and the surreal.
Wide-eyed wizard Fujimoto, voiced with narcoleptic mania by comedian Tokoro Joji, is by far the most rational of the film's fantastical creations. He's an oddball, but he makes sense. But when waves begin to lap at the doorstep to Sousuke's hilltop home and the townsfolk jovially pile into rowboats to scud over a swollen sea of prehistoric fish, we begin to wonder whether this is the real world or some beatific daydream. Miyazaki draws no clear distinction.
Gaké no Ué no Ponyo is a children's love story, driven with monomaniacal ferocity by Ponyo and Sousuke's pure mutual affection. Composer Joe Hisaishi underscores this intensity, calling up mighty arias and swells of strings to accompany Ponyo's first ascent to the surface, and later evoking Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in a stunning sequence where Ponyo chases down a speeding car while running atop a cascading tsunami of gigantic fish.
While the film loses much of its energy—though none of its eccentricity—in the final act, Miyazaki has nonetheless succeeded in creating yet another modern fairy tale. It is a simple, pure vision, guilelessly washed across with a devoted kindergartener's finger paints.
Published as Tinulthin on imdb, July 27, 2008.