Review: Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo is a tragic but magic love story

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

There's almost no way that any single part of this film can do justice to or appropriately indicate how good and beautiful is Ponyo—unless of course you are already familiar with its director, Hayao Miyazaki. Revered among anime enthusiasts for constantly creating, if not fully developing fantastic, visually-stunning worlds, Miyazaki is nothing if not unique, even within his often-eccentric niche.

But while his work is an acquired taste for folks who prefer their big-screen animation straightforward and conventional, Ponyo manages to transcend labels commonly associated with his work—in particular, "weird"—because it manages to access feelings that are not only wondrous, but truly wonderful.

Noah Lindsey Cyrus (sister of Miley) plays Ponyo, a curious goldfish who falls in love with a little boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) after he rescues her from imprisonment in a mason jar. Against the objections of her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), Ponyo uses magic to escape the sea and become a human girl.

But even when Sosuke's mother Lisa (Tina Fey) permits the two of them to be together, Ponyo's mortal life threatens to disrupt the harmony of the natural world, inducing a great typhoon that covers much of the land. Soon, Sosuke is challenged to prove his dedication to the goldfish-turned-little girl, quite literally with the fate of humanity at stake, while Ponyo must decide whether her love for this little boy means more than the relationship she shares with her family beneath the waves.

When I was ten, I found an abandoned bird's nest in my backyard and decided I was going to hatch the eggs in it myself. While there were certainly many obsessions that dominated my young life during that time (see my review for G.I. Joe for example), this one qualified as the end of the world to me—especially when one of the eggs fell out of the nest and broke on my skateboard.

While this trip down memory lane might not seem relevant, it's precisely that sort of feeling which Ponyo evokes while you watch it: that memory, and that sense that something is the ultimate, most important thing that has ever happened to you, even before you've quite learned what's really important. It doesn't matter that these children are "in love" with one another before they know what those words mean, only that the audience recognizes the unbreakable bond of companionship, obsession and affection that compels them to risk their lives—not to mention those of the rest of mankind—in order to be together.

Perhaps as a byproduct of its cultural origins, or maybe just a result of its fabulist structure, there are certainly grown-up considerations to be made about many of the decisions both the children and parents make in the film, among them allowing two five-year-olds to be consumed by their devotion to one another, much less leaving them alone unsupervised as a massive thunderstorm beats down upon their geographically inhospitable (albeit gorgeous) hometown. But Ponyo makes no claims that it's meant to exist in a real world where kids can't take care of themselves at five, or that authority figures won't accept it at face value when they tell them that they're fine despite the absence of any parent or guardian.

Indeed, Miyazaki's latest is a little bit like a de-aged The Little Mermaid and then processed through decades of Japanese animation, creating a universe where ideas topple one over the next like fish in a net, creating such rapturous motion and invigorating beauty that you're distracted from the fact that in a real-world context much of what's happening could be considered tragic.

Ironically, I hardly call myself a Miyazaki fan, and was in fact dreading this film precisely because I'd seen clips and they looked, well, weird. But in the context of the story, every odd development and image in Ponyo works gorgeously well, creating these indelible moments that serve as recognizable set pieces while never veering into pure self-indulgence, or succumbing to the cultural specificities that make the material distinctive, but which so often undermine anime's ability to find creative and especially emotional purchase with international audiences.

Ultimately, Miyazaki's movie is not the sort that reminds you what it was like to be a kid, it actually makes you feel like you are one while you're watching it. All of which is why animation or anime, Japanese or English, Ponyo's considerable charms translate easily to audiences of all ages, making the film not mere spectacle, but something truly special.