Since this is a text, you cannot hear me sing the Japanese theme song of Ponyo to it, but instead let me (textually) welcome you to the review of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo! Other Miyazaki March posts are found HERE in the directory, but let us waste no time and get to this wet adventure brought to us by Studio Ghibli.
Ponyo is obviously loosely based on The Little Mermaid, at least in terms of girl from the sea falling in love with boy on the land and wanting to be girl on the land and her dad being all against it and havoc and ultimately love and happiness. Except for the Japanese setting and the Ponyo protagonists being much younger and no evil villains or cruel deaths (The Little Mermaid is after all, not only available in its Disney version). It is the second most recent Miyazaki/Ghibli feature, the most recent if you only count the ones that Miyazaki directed and was released to theaters in 2008. It’s lovely but it suffers from two major problems that hinder it from being a great movie.
Ponyo, more so than other Miyazaki features, has a very distinct animation style that really works for its advantage. Reminding me a lot of my favorite Disney movie Lilo & Stitch we encounter a lot of watercolor backgrounds in a lighter than usual color palette. The colors are beautiful and the animation as such is of course flawless. I really like the character design, I particularly like how Sosuke’s hair doesn’t seem like a hairdo for someone his age at all, how his mother is this plucky and bouncy young thing who drives cars Really Bad. I love the whole underwater scenery, once the sea level rises and swallows most of the islands and I think the animation of Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the sea, is beautifully done.
There are a few things I find questionable in the animation, which is that the water has eyes sometimes, which is just as nonsensical as the fire in Howl’s Moving Castle having eyes, but there the fire is a central character and I can look past it, here the whole water having eyes thing is just, well, weird and doesn’t really serve a purpose. Plus, it looks a bit like wonky animation. The other thing would be the characters design of Ponyo’s dad, Fujimoto, who looks like a clownish drag queen having a real bad hair day and while it is okay and even kinda fun, it also makes practically no sense to have him look like that and each time I see the movie I find his visuals really distracting.
I find that the main strength in Ponyo lies with the supporting cast. Ponyo irritates me a little and Sosuke is fine and nice, but it is really Sosuke’s mother, the elderly women at the retirement home and Ponyo’s mum who make the movie a joyful ride for me. The problem I have with the protagonists is that neither of them makes for a believable child (unlike the two girls in My Neighbor Totoro) and as unbelievable children they have to be too much like the children they are supposed to be in order to make me look past the believability issue. And no, I don’t really suppose you understand what I mean by that. Well, with Sosuke, he is presented as this very young kindergarten boy who is much more curious and much more serious than kids his age usually are, but it is this independence and curiosity that drive the plot. I just feel like he is a touch too sombre to feel like he could be an actual kid. I like the idea behind it, but I have my issues with the execution.
Sosuke’s mother Lisa on the other hand feels like a real person. Granted, she drives cars like she is a total whacko and endangers her child without skipping a beat, but her being furious over her husband’s absence, her coming around, her love for Sosuke and the overall way she moves and talks feel like I am meeting a real person there.
The gang of elderly women at the retirement home is awesome in their mix of grumpy and cool, how some of them are the perfect grandmothers and others are not (which is just what people have to live with in real life), but in the face of water swallowing all up, they work together really well and I like how they’re all giggling little girls over the fact that they can walk again. I am also really fond of the settings the movie comes up with. Having it take place in a retirement home and a kindergarten is pretty neat, coupled with nice underwater scenes and Sosuke’s home on an awesome island makes for pretty odd but pretty interesting places to have the plot evolve in.
The principle of not explaining everything going on in the movie works both to Ponyo’s advantage and disadvantage, unfortunately more so to the latter. What I like about the movie is how it’s not fussy about the whole transformation of Ponyo. The movie is all like: sure, she is a fish with a girl’s face and then all of a sudden she has these weird legs and arms and in time develops into a regular five year old girl just to switch back to the weird arms and simplified face every once in a while. And not one time anyone is particularly bummed out about it (especially not Sosuke) nor does the movie waste one split-second trying to tell us why that happens. I like that because it leaves room for our imagination to interpret these changes. Is it because she is in love with Sosuke? Is it because she needs his approval? Is it because it takes up too much of her magical powers? Is it a combination of all of these things?
But this no-explanation-policy provides for at least one of the major fails of this movie: The dangerous situation that earth is in because of Ponyo’s wish. I mean: WTF? So, because Ponyo wants to be with Sosuke and wants to be a girl our planet is going to see humanity wiped off of its face because the moon gets closer and sea level rises? How the hell does that work? What is so damn special about Ponyo and/or her wish that she/it holds the power over the fate of effin’ humanity? The whole speculation-is-fun rule does not apply here, because we are told very explicitly that this is how it is, we are just never told as to why that is. And that would be fine IF THIS WOULDN’T BE THE CENTRAL DANGER IN THIS PLOT! How am I supposed to care about this shit if I don’t even know how it works? Cause I hear about it and go “wait, what?” instead of “ah, interesting!” It’s not that I expect this incredibly elaborate answer as to why the fate of humanity is linked to Ponyo’s wish (though writing it out like that it practically begs for an elaborate answer) but to have at least some hint of an idea as to why there is the connection and how it is that it all gets solved by eternal love would be nice and lend the story some plausibility and make me more invested – and put me off a little less.
But I said there are two major flaws, and there are. Number 2 is closely linked to number 1 because: Humanity is saved because Sosuke professes his eternal love for Ponyo. Except he doesn’t even really. Except they are both 5 years old. Except: wait, what??
So the whole solution to saving the planet lies in Ponyo needing to be loved forever for who she is by the boy she fell in love with and bam! crisis averted. While the aspect of him loving her even though she is a fish is cool and all, Sosuke is still five years old. How would he know about eternal love (monogamy? relationship crises? personality development?) and how is his “I guess” answer, half-assed as it is already, enough for a goddess to say “yeah, he’ll probably never question their relationship based on Ponyo’s background in FUTURE YEARS TO COME”. I mean, fuck that. I know that Ponyo is targeted at children more so than other Miyazaki features and I know that this is probably why readers of this post don’t think throwing around “fucks” here is appropriate. But really, I sit there and watch the movie and am all “fuck that,” ‘cause that is ridiculous bullshit and it bugs me so much because it ruins the whole movie. Couldn’t she have asked: “will you promise to try to be her friend for the rest of your life and give her support when needed?” Okay, yay! Might still be much, but yeah, he could. But “love her forever for who she is”? Asking that a five year old boy, no matter how supposedly wise beyond his years, is like asking the Tea Party to preserve minority rights and placing all your future political actions on their “sure, yes”. Mind you, Sosuke is surely not to be equated with the Tea Party Movement, but his answer – even if believable in this given situation – is just so not suited to inform a decision of that magnitude in any way that it makes the whole plot end on that weird note. So, ten years from now Sosuke has a crush on another girl and then sea-monsters will rise and devour us all? That’s what I am thinking when the end-credits roll.
I am also not the biggest fan of the principle “girl’s fate lies in boy’s hand” here, but I will just note my displeasure with it and move on. I am also wondering: Will this crisis hit us every time one of Ponyo’s sisters falls in love? And why do they look like her? And are they younger? And in how far are they different from her? And why is none of these questions addressed when they are so freaking obvious?
But I don’t want to end this review sounding like I hate the movie with a passion, because really, I don’t. It is still a fun ride and very enjoyable. It has a super-charming support cast and breath-taking animation and the plot itself makes for an adventurous ride. There are just some holes in this plot that you can steer the Enterprise through and I am particularly infuriated that they are not addressed and fixed because they seem so central to the movie’s message. Just imagine how marvellous Ponyo could have been without these plot holes? I know, frustrating.