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REVIEW: Ponyo

Posted September 16th 2009 by Jordan Mammo.

According to Hayao Miyazaki, the biggest difference between Ponyo and his previous films is that he has aged. Ponyo, the man says, is the result of his aging. At first glance it's a little difficult to see how this is the case. The art direction and style seem more like throwbacks to the simplicity of earlier films such as My Neighbor Totoro than a style honed after years of work and growth. This is not a bad thing by any means, as Ponyo manages to etch one mesmerizing image after another into your head. The result is that even though Miyazaki can't quite string all of these images together by the end of the third act, Ponyo is still a thematically strong and beautiful film. That said, is it really something he couldn't have made as a younger director?

Much of Ponyo is what we've come to expect from Studio Ghibli: imaginative, strikingly pretty, and confident. The film opens underwater with a wonderfully dialogue-free scene in which Ponyo, a fish-like creature with a human face, escapes from the bubble that her father Fujimoto keeps her in. She washes ashore and is found by a little boy named Sosuke and his mother Lisa. Much of the film follows Ponyo as she discovers what it feels like to be human and tries to escape Fujimoto's attempts to bring her back to the sea. The rest of it, however, peers into Sosuke's family life. One of the great things about films like this is that they take the time to enjoy the more silent moments in life. Characters don't have to be constantly talking or doing something exciting. Miyazaki is content with letting them do their chores, quietly explore, and make dinner. Ponyo is so relaxed and exudes such positive energy that it's a wonder it doesn't come across as schmaltzy.

However, if there's one criticism that's been leveled at Miyazaki's films, it's that they often seem to lose their focus. Dream logic is a frequent narrative form in his movies, and sometimes the images and sequences don't quite add up for some people. Some have explained this away by saying that they are often written from a child's perspective, and children tend to pick up and drop plot points at a whim. Generally speaking, this is a reasonable explanation to me, and some of my favorite films follow this kind of wavy logic. Not everything has to make perfect sense. That's part of what makes them powerful, that idea that there's something unexplained going to work that we may not be able to fully grasp.

At some point, though, it's possible that this becomes too convenient an explanation, and that's when a film's focus may need to be questioned. Ponyo seems home to more loose threads than previous Ghibli works. Anyone watching Spirited Away and seeing Chihiro's parents turn into pigs can see the dilemma the poor girl faces. When Ponyo decides she wants to become a human this is supposed to be extremely bad for the fate of the Earth. Why this is so is never really explained. Not only that, but apparently if Sosuke fails to prove his love for Ponyo then her journey will be in vain because she'll turn into sea foam! That's terrible! But why she would turn into sea foam is never really explained either. Fujimoto seems terrified at the fact that he might need Ponyo's mother to help him find her, and at one point Ponyo herself says that her mother is pretty but can also be very mean. When we actually meet this woman/goddess she seems to be perfectly likable. These points are jarring as the movie unfolds, but even if they're taken at face value, the movie unfortunately doesn't know how to end. Compared to all the build-up that's just occurred, the finale is extremely anticlimactic. What viewers end up with then is a simple, beautiful film whose ending doesn't quite satisfy.

Except in one way. And perhaps this is where Miyazaki's age is apparent.

Many of his films have incorporated environmental themes in a number of ways. Some of them feature children exploring their outdoor surroundings joyously and without fear. Princess Mononoke emphasizes the importance of balancing industrialization with conservation. Howl's Moving Castle tackles the destructive effect of war, even if it‘s in a ham-fisted sort of way. These examples suggest a disillusionment with humanity on Miyazaki's part, or at the very least a severe discomfort and distaste for what people are doing to each other and to the planet they occupy.

Enter Fujimoto. Not only is he disgusted with what people are doing to the Earth's waters, but he has also abandoned humanity to live under the sea, concocting potions and working his magic to maintain the delicate balance of nature that humanity risks toppling. So when Ponyo decides that she wants to swim away to shore and become a human herself, you can imagine that he will have no part of this, and absolutely cannot endorse his daughter‘s wishes. It's hard not to see a little of Miyazaki himself in this character, so when the third act ends the way it does it's almost surprising. Consider the problems that Miyazaki has famously had with his son, and consider that Ponyo may be his final film. That acceptance and apology are waiting near the end may mean that Miyazaki himself has found a little piece of mind in our blue, beautiful, and imperfect world.

Tags: Ponyo

Posted in: Reviews, Entertainment

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User Comments

Batist

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I loved that movie.

Thursday, September 17th 2009

hencethus

Yeah, I thought it was fantastic. My kids will be watching it as soon as there is an English version.

Saturday, September 19th 2009

Adam

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This was a really good review.

Tuesday, September 22nd 2009

Dragon164z

Indeed, great review. And hencethus, Disney released the English version in theaters a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, September 22nd 2009

Jake

I'm glad you turned it into more of a dissertation of Miyazaki himself, it blends nicely with the review.

Tuesday, September 22nd 2009

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