For America, nothing signifies the joy of hand-drawn animation like the chipper (and all powerful) little grin of Mickey Mouse. Similarly, for Japan, Studio Ghibli and its cuddly character Totoro are symbols of their national talent. Founded in 1985 by visionaries Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the studio has produced some of the finest hand-drawn features of the past 25 years, including the heartbreaking Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and our personal favourite, Spirited Away. For his latest animated epic, Miyazaki turns to Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy-tale The Little Mermaid for inspiration.
A Whale (Or Mermaid) Of A Tale
Five-year-old boy Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas) lives in a cliff-top house with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey), the pair of them waiting for sea-faring father Koichi (Matt Damon) to return home. Down at the water’s edge, Sosuke spots a glass jar containing a goldfish called Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus), who has momentarily escaped her wizard father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson). The boy proudly shows off his pet stating “I saved her, she’s my responsibility now” – and tells the residents of the local old people’s home, how Ponyo magically healed his cut finger.
“I’d let a fish lick me if it would get me out of his wheelchair”; jokes one of the elderly women. Fujimoto uses his magic to snatch back Ponyo, but his defiant daughter taps into her rapidly developing powers to metamorphose into a little girl and find her way back to Sosuke. By abandoning the sea and yearning to be human, Ponyo upsets the delicate balance of Nature. The girl’s mother, sea goddess Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), urges calm: “If the boy’s love is pure, Ponyo will remain as a human and the balance of power will be restored” she counsels wisely.
Ponyo is a visually arresting addition to Miyazaki’s impressive portfolio. The opening underwater sequences take the breath away with hundreds of jellyfish, crustaceans and schools of fish swarming across the screen in a dazzling display of colour. However, Ghibli’s work is usually distinguished by its attention to the emotions of the characters and here, this charming escapade doesn’t quite stay afloat. The makers seem a little too preoccupied with hitting home (over and over again) its central eco-friendly message, and this somewhat hampers the natural flow of the plot. The film noticeably treads water in the final half hour when Lisa, rather handily, is forced to abandon her boy in the eye of the storm. “You have to be the man of the house tonight”; she instructs Sosuke, sowing the seeds of his awakening as hero, as well as finally underlining our responsibilites in the natural world.
Overall, Ponyo is a lovely, well-drawn and imaginative aventure perfect for the little ones. We’ve come to expect nothing less from director Miyazaki, and we weren’t disappointed. However, the film doesn’t quite have the effortless magic of his previous works, and perhaps would have benefited from being a little less self-conscious in it’s eco-fight.