"...Ponyo towers over this summer of empty toy-related blockbusters..."

The Enchanting Simplicity of Miyazaki

(071009) Within seconds, "Ponyo" spirits audiences away on a flight and dive of creativity that ranges from the moon to a deep blue sea streaked with purple, gray and gold. It's like an international aquarium of the imagination. It teems with fascinating creatures. It conjures a persuasive threat that conflicting forces in the water and on land will go out of balance and destroy the world as we know it. But "Ponyo" is in some ways the most subtle of all ecological movies. It takes in the human trash that litters a marine paradise. But the movie also draws its characters into an elastic circle of life that vitalizes man and fish alike.

Best of all, "Ponyo" never ceases to be a genuine odyssey in short pants. It's fundamentally about childhood curiosity and courage as embodied in a small boy named Sosuke. He mistakes a fish girl for a goldfish, names her Ponyo -- and inadvertently makes her fall in love with him and the whole human world.

The family dynamics are as memorable, individual and funny as the strokes of home-made magic that writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, the supreme master of hand-drawn animation, keeps pulling out of his hat. Sosuke's mother, Lisa, works in a senior citizens center (Sosuke goes to a kindergarten next door). They live together in a cliff house that allows them to swap signals with their beloved Koichi when this devoted but often-absent husband and father is skippering his ship at sea. Sosuke is an authentic 5-year-old, alternately brave and fragile, and Lisa is a terrific if somewhat reckless mom who admits to frustration with her husband and imbues her son with her own bold attack on life.

What's amazing about "Ponyo" is that Ponyo's relationship with her parents is just as compelling and believable -- though her father, Fujimoto, is a potent underwater warlock who thinks he holds Earth's fate in his hands, and her mother, Gran Mamare, is a shape-changing divinity, who in one gasp-inducing sequence appears to Koichi as a goddess of mercy. Ponyo uses her own powerful magic to escape the bubble home Fujimoto has created for her and to transform herself into a frisky, generous girl the same age and height as Sosuke. Fujimoto worries that her metamorphosis will destabilize the planet and cause the waters to rise toward the moon -- but Gran Mamare says it won't as long as Sosuke can prove he truly loves her.

Miyazaki may be the only animator in movie history who has been able, film after film and genre after genre, to realize complete idiosyncratic visions the way a writer-illustrator like Maurice Sendak does in books like "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen." The wizardry of "Ponyo" lies in the way you follow Miyazaki's fluid compositional lines as they weave together the disparate universes of a boy and a fish girl and thread in and out of their souls.

Fable, emotion and psychology merge in a fairy-tale brew that will hold children rapt and engage the better angels of adults. Fujiomoto himself is a walking psychedelic effect, clothed as if from Carnaby Street and ear-ringed like a pirate. He's always carrying or operating paraphernalia as ornate as Captain Nemo's.

Miyazaki works passion and zealotry into the fiber of this character, and intrigue into everything he does -- such as alter and enlarge dozens of Ponyo's little sisters into fish as big as waves. (Ponyo can do that, too). There's something ineffably wonderful about the way Fujimoto turns these waves into a tsunami straight out of a quarrelsome crone's prophecy. Everything in "Ponyo" is simultaneously supernatural and sensible.

The whole American voice cast is beyond reproach, including Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as Sosuke, but the true audio star here is Liam Neeson, whose virtuoso inflections turn Fujimoto's spells into poetry. In visual terms, that's what Miyazaki does in the entire movie.

Over the years, Miyazaki has given us some of the greatest animated films ever made--“Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” are among his better-known titles in the United States--but while they have been perfectly suitable for families interested in exposing their kids to movies that aren’t merely extended toy commercials, they have never really been kid films per se with their advanced themes, reasonably complex narratives and decidedly non-cutesy visual styles. With “Ponyo,” Miyazaki has shifted his cinematic approach by making a film that is deliberately aimed at younger viewers--the storytelling is simple and the visual design is bright, colorful, and reminiscent of simple children’s drawings throughout. At first, the shift from the more literal and realistic visual style of much of his previous work may seem a bit jarring at first for longtime fans, that feeling quickly disappears when it becomes obvious that while the animated style may look simpler, it is actually just as formally complex and aesthetically dazzling as anything he has done before. Some of the scenes here, such as our first look at Ponyo’s undersea world and the jaw-dropping Tsunami sequence in which the huge waves of water are envisioned as gigantic mass of undulating fish. Ponyo cheerfully hopping from fish to fish in search of Sosuke while blithely leaving untold destruction in her wake, is such breathtaking scene to behold that I am already counting down the days until the film comes out on Blu-ray so that I can examine it at length. The character design is also extraordinary, especially when you consider that a creature that resembles a giant goldfish with a human face in a red dress should theoretically be more appalling than appealing. Nevertheless, all of the characters in the film are beautifully rendered, none more so than Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), a creature so ravishing that she makes Jessica Rabbit seem practically dowdy by comparison.

Indeed the entire look of the film is akin to looking at a Renoir painting after spending hours gazing at video game graphics. The realization is that this is artistry and just a succession of programmed scenes. Pastels and bright hues are in abundance here all looking like they emerged from an artist brush, not a keyboard. Quiet beauty reigns here. With the possible exception of Up, Ponyo towers over this summer of empty toy-related blockbusters. It will end up as one of the best films in American release this year.

Directed by:    Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Written by:    Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. English language
 adaptation by Melissa Mathison
Starring the Voices of:    Cate Blanchett, Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi
Released:    06/28/09 (USA)
Length:    101 minutes
Rating:    Rated G suitable for all audiences

PONYO © 2009 Walt Disney Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
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