Ponyo is one of those films a mere review can’t do justice to. Oh sure, I can try to explain how beautiful the painted backdrops are, how meticulous the animation is in replicating real physical actions (not to mention how stunning the environmental effects are), and how the story is engaging without your typical “three act” structured narrative and lack of a true villain. But it really has to be seen, and I recommend you do so.
Part of the reason why it’s difficult to say why I like Ponyo so much is that if you were to describe the plot to someone unfamiliar with it, chances are they’ll say, “Sounds like Japan’s version of The Little Mermaid. What’s so special about that?” Indeed, director Hayao Miyazaki drew inspiration from the famous story, but the way this similar story unfolds is much different. For one thing, the decision to reach the surface happens right away, even before the opening credits; a red goldfish (whom we later learn is originally named “Brunhilda”) sneaks to the surface, away from the watchful eyes of her human father, Fujimoto. Yes, he lives underwater; just go with it. It’s on land that the goldfish meets the curious, kind, five-year-old boy Sosuke, who rescues her from a trash bottle, and names her Ponyo. The two form a bond from then on, which causes problems when Fujimoto wants to return Ponyo back underwater where she “belongs”. Not only is he protective of his daughter, but the longer Ponyo stays on land, the more out-of-balance the planet becomes, causing huge tsunamis. So there’s certainly justification for his actions; he’s not evil, just a dad who loves his ocean creatures but has a hard time letting go.
Ponyo also differs from the Hans Christian Anderson story in how Ponyo becomes human; here, a drop of human blood (caused by a prick of Sosuke’s finger while getting her out of the bottle) does the trick, along with some potions owned by Fujimoto; there is no evil sea witch. And Ponyo doesn’t remain a human after this, either; she fluctuates between her fish form, a more chicken/frog-like state, and full human, depending on various factors. It’s neat to see the shape-shifting (which isn’t grotesque, so parents, don’t worry about it) and how that increases the tension at certain points in the story.
Ponyo succeeds in both grand spectacle and with smaller moments. The aforementioned tsunamis, which you may have seen from the TV commercials, are indeed stunning, and there’s a pretty exciting bit where Sosuke’s mother, Lisa, is trying to cross a dip in the road before it fills with water again. But just as much enjoyment can be had from Ponyo’s joy in tasting certain foods for the first time; her reactions to normally mundane things are amusing and make you say “Awww” in the process. As a matter of fact, this film has a lot of cute moments, but none of them feel like they’re trying to force cuteness down your throat and it ends up being a turn-off. Ponyo’s innocence and deep, non-sexual love for Sosuke are just naturally adorable.
The film works when it comes to emotion, too; there’s a touching scene later in the movie where Sosuke goes out to search for Lisa and is unable to find her. I’m sure we can all relate to such a traumatic incident from our childhoods, and the observational nature about kids is what really sells this film.
As I’ve already alluded to, Ponyo is eye candy. The mountainous coastal backdrops, the ocean waves (which somehow are both cartoonish and realistic at the same time, if that makes sense), and even unremarkable everyday settings like a nursing home or school, all look fantastic and show the care that the crew put into this project. Animation, per usual with Studio Ghibli, impresses. In fairness, it isn’t always animated on ones (which Disney films typically are; hence their smooth movements), but when you factor in the detail on everything, it’s understandable that the framerate drops at times. This is nitpicking, of course; overall I’d rank the animation as excellent, particularly when it replicates subtle human nuances to draw us in more than if everyone just woodenly went through their actions without any personality. And the movie looks even better on Blu-ray, and was just as good as when I saw it on the big screen.
The two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set has a bit more than your usual Ghibli/Disney DVD, which is welcome indeed. Usually, all we get are some brief English cast interviews, a similarly brief interview with Hayao Miyazaki, and the storyboards. Ponyo, however, features eight “Behind the Studio” featurettes, each running three to nine minutes in length, concerning the creation of Ponyo: inspiration, location scouting, music, and other facets of production. Interestingly, the featurettes don’t just focus on Ponyo, but explore other Miyazaki films (for instance, there are two brief making-ofs for Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). Additionally, the original Japanese trailers for the film are included.
There are also numerous “Enter the Lands” videos, which are basically promos for the various Ghibli films, in addition to showcasing the main characters of numerous films through narration and clips. Finally, there are also the usual Disney trailers, including … drool … Blu-ray footage of Beauty and the Beast, which has never looked better. But more on that when it’s released in October.
Let’s talk languages. When I got the Blu-ray set, I decided to watch the movie in Japanese this time, as I had already seen it in English in theaters. Both tracks work wonderfully, and it was interesting to see the minor differences; for example, in a scene where Lisa tells off Sosuke’s dad (a sailor) with morse code via a search light, she repeatedly signals “Bug off!” in the English version, but in Japanese she signals “Baka!”, the Japanese word for “idiot”. Both versions convey the same message, but in different ways.
Ponyo is delightful and adorable without being gag-inducing, and contains virtually nothing objectionable, so this is a perfect choice for not only the younger crowd but for older viewers as well who are weary of restless Hollywood movies where the only concern is getting from point A to point B, and want to soak in the gorgeous hand-drawn artwork while they’re at it. Highly recommended.