It's impossible to really compare Hayao Miyazaki's films to anyone else's. Nobody makes films like he does. Though his style has been mimicked (even by his own studio, as Tales From Earthsea illustrates), it has never been recreated. Pixar's John Lasseter cites Miyazaki as a huge influence, and perhaps that's why Pixar is the only other animation studio in the world to come close to the quality of Studio Ghibli's offerings. But when you see a new Miyazaki movie, you are seeing a work that will entertain and surprise on its own terms. You might not like them all the same, but they're nothing if not imaginative and creative.
Miyazaki's last entry, Howl's Moving Castle, was the first thing to be remotely a blemish on his impeccable record. It's still a fine film, one that I mentioned that I'd love to see again...and yet, I've not returned to it. What I've remembered about it over time was not its beauty (which is breathtaking) but feeling quite confused about the plot as I walked out. After that experience, alongside the admittedly childish artwork that's been coming out advertising Ponyo for the past couple of years, I didn't have high hopes. But now I can say that Miyazaki has returned to top form with Ponyo, easily his most assured work (and that's saying a lot) and perhaps his most charming. As much as I have enjoyed all of his films, not since Totoro have I so absolutely and unreservedly loved a Miyazaki film.
Ponyo is a fish...a goldfish, to be exact. Her father, Fujimoto, is a wizard who permanently resides undersea; years ago, he renounced his humanity in protest of the destruction of the oceans. But Ponyo is terribly interested in the human world, and she escapes in a jellyfish to the surface. There, she meets a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke. While Sosuke is very taken with his little fish, showing her off to the women at the convalescent home where his mother works, Fujimoto quickly comes after her and returns her to his world. But Ponyo isn't so easily grounded, and her escape and transformation into human form do plenty to knock the world out of balance. This little fish may have found her best friend in Sosuke, but her decision causes a flood that puts Sosuke's whole town in serious jeopardy.
Just about the time that Miyazaki seems to have done all he can do in creating awe-inspiring artwork, he does one better. I'm always amazed by the physical beauty of his artistic expressions, but here his radical choices are stunning. Gone is the high detail and precision of his other films. In its place are watercolor backgrounds that show childlike simplicity and yet, paradoxically, mastery of subject. Boats floating on the sea often resembles toys you would play with in a tub with kids.
For some, these choices will disappoint. Unlike most of Miyazaki's recent entries, this film is not made for teenagers (who make up the vast majority of the anime audience in America, at least), and it will seem childish. Indeed it is. But that is also why this film is perfect. It is a children's film in the truest sense of the word. I took my 6-year-old son to this film without a worry, and that was so nice -- not to mention he loved it. So many films made for kids these days have humor that's in the toilet (literally) and innuendos that have no place in children's entertainment...and if they don't have those elements, they're usually chock full of cultural references to show just how hip they are. But those cultural references will be dated before those movies even get to DVD, while Ponyo and Totoro will still be appropriate to show my great-grandchildren someday. While the mainstream press has been overwhelmingly positive for Ponyo, their praise has still been somewhat reserved. I think it comes from not truly being able to enter a child's world. If you can, this film is an utter delight.
What works so well about Ponyo is that, though it is obviously a magical story with its own peculiar logic, its human characters are completely believable. Sosuke's mother Lisa is a mom struggling between balancing work and home and a husband whom she obviously loves but who is incredibly frustrating due to his constant work and wildly unpredictable sailing schedule. She has to make real and difficult choices. While she is not the "lead" per se, she's one of the first adults to play a significant role in a Miyazaki film (outside of his outing with Lupin and The Castle of Cagliostro over thirty years ago). Meanwhile, Sosuke is truly a young boy; I recognized my sons in him! He also tries to understand the tenuous relationship between his folks, sometimes acting at a go-between when things get rough. I believed him and I believed in him. And that doesn't even start to mention the secondary characters like the women at the nursing home. Little Ponyo's own story is perhaps all the more fantastic because the real world all around her is...well, so real.
While Disney took steps in the right direction with their release of Ponyo, putting it onto 800 screens and doing some marketing here and there for it, it's nothing like what this film deserves. Had Disney really cared what happened to this film, they could have worked all sorts of their own magic to get the word out. Nevertheless, they did put plenty of care into it, commissioning a top-notch dub among the best I've heard. While there's a minor change to the music during the film to make it more palatable to a generation brought up on the exorable Kids Bop, it's otherwise superb. You need to see this film on the big screen if at all possible, not just to encourage the growth of anime releases but also because it's the best way to experience the beauty on display. With this many screens, while you may not find it at the most convenient location, you should find it reasonably nearby. And frankly, don't use the "I hate dubs" argument to avoid it. This film is great, the dub is great, and it needs your support.
There's really no summation necessary here. Go right now and buy your tickets on Fandango or Moviefone and go enjoy a cinematic treat, and if there are kids in your life, somehow get them to the theatre too. If you're reading this review late, go place your DVD order. It's that good.
Ponyo -- nothing objectionable -- A+