REVIEW: Gake no ue no Ponyo [Ponyo] [2008]

“Is he an evil wizard?”

Being in Toronto for a convention that deals with anime meant I couldn’t leave the city without actually seeing an anime film, right? Lucky for us, the new Hayao Miyazaki film Gake no ue no Ponyo was playing at the local multiplex just minutes from our hotel. Distributed like his previous few films in the United States by Disney, from its Japanese Studio Ghibli origins, Ponyo ports the vision of its creator in beautiful animation and color with the inclusion of new Hollywood actors to dub in the script. With talent such as Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Betty White, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, and Cate Blanchett, it becomes all about whether the story grabs you and takes you along for its journey. There are no subtitles or “bad acting” to make note of, no, the story is key. And was it good enough? In my opinion—not really. Definitely the weakest of Miyazaki’s films that I’ve had the pleasure of watching, Ponyo may work wonderfully for the young children, but unfortunately that is where its success ends. Besides trying to make a comment on humanity’s interaction with nature, there really isn’t anything more than a cute tale to keep the kiddies occupied for an hour and a half.

It’s all about young Ponyo, a fish parented by Fujimoto, a human who has decided to leave dry land for the ocean, and Gran Mamare, a sort of God of the sea. Given magic by her father, Ponyo wants to utilize her new power and explore the world; soon finding herself stuck in a glass jar right outside the Cliffside home of Sosuke, a five-year-old boy who enjoys animals. He sees this hurt goldfish and tries to revive her, in effect accidentally allowing her to taste his human blood, which allows for her eventual transformation to human form. Fujimoto attempts to bring her back to the fold and keep a tenuous balance in the world whole, (ocean vs. land), but realizes she has become too powerful for him to subdue. Contacting her mother and consulting with her, he decides to let his daughter stay above water if her love for Sosuke, and his for her, is true. Risking her destruction if the love isn’t pure, he knows that it is now up to her to restore balance, bringing the magic of the ocean back, away from the humans who may not be able to control it.

Even from the beginning, devoid of voice, only a colorful display of oceanic life, the animation is gorgeous to watch, but sometimes overabundant in its jam-packed frame. The opening scene, watching Ponyo’s escape for the surface, makes you a bit disoriented, not knowing what is happening. Are all those little fish her children? Is the creepy water lord Fujimoto a hunter on the search for her? The familial relationship between these characters really doesn’t become known until later on. Once the magic is released, however, and these “fish with faces” unleash the tsunami prophesized by the elderly Toki, a resident at Sosuke’s mother’s retirement home, it all makes sense and the audience can just sit back and revel in the artistry at work. A golden glow emits forth and changes aquatic animals into powerful fish and alters the water itself into a school of powerful fish-like waves, slowly rising higher and higher as the moon gets closer and closer, raising the tide—the planetary proximity having been thrown off by the human metamorphosis of Ponyo. The waves themselves reminded me of Hokusai Katsushika and his “Great Wave off Kanagawa” woodcut; the artistic comparisons are definitely there throughout, melded with Miyazaki’s signature style to become his own.

An attempt at infusing the story with an environmentally friendly bent is quickly tossed to the side as the quick retorts of Fujimoto and his disdain for humanity’s unclean living become nonexistent. The story becomes more about the love between these two new friends and the acceptance of someone different as equal. Sosuke knows his friend used to be a fish, but his love for her doesn’t waver as a result. Even though his father is a fisherman himself, gone long stretches at sea on his large boat, the bond this girl and he create is too powerful to allow for petty differences to interfere. So, in that regard, Ponyo is a great film for the youngsters to make them laugh, get them excited from the tension of the giant storm and search for Sosuke’s mother, as well as help them to understand the meaning of tolerance. It is a cute film, well worth your time, and successful at bringing a smile to your face. Unfortunately, it is from the mind of Miyazaki, whose previous works have held such layered storytelling, captivating on so many levels and reaching viewers of all ages. Maybe Hayao wanted to tell a simple story and nothing more. If that is the case, bravo, I guess I just wanted more.

Gake no ue no Ponyo 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1 & 2] A scene from Walt Disney Pictures’ Ponyo (2009) Copyright © Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved.


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