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REVIEW: Miyazaki’s Ponyo

I just saw the most surreal film released under the Walt Disney banner since… I dunno, The Three Caballeros?

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is strictly a kids film (4-9 years old) and I think they’ll dig it. But adult viewers may end up scratching their heads and think they are stoned – or seriously wish they were. I struggled with its simplistic narrative during the first half hour, then I gave in to its child’s-eye point of view, let go of my adult expectations, and just sat back and enjoyed the insanity. There’s a lot of insanity …but a lot to enjoy as well.

At its core, Ponyo is an sweet, old fashioned fairy tale – albeit one about inter-species love between two five-year-olds (one a former goldfish-with-a-human-head who runs away from home), laced with pro-environmental messages. The animation and imagination on display is wonderful, but the characters do not have much depth, and their motivations are poorly explained. Ponyo’s “father” is an “evil Wizard” (her words) wearing a striped suit and ascot, looking like a refugee from Haight-Ashbury, 1968. Ponyo’s “mother” is a beautiful giant goddess of calm and wisdom – right out of those early Toei animated features of the 1960s, the ones based on ancient Asian myths and legends.

The artwork itself is strange – its not as sophisticated as recent Miyazaki epics. The backgrounds have a simple pastel crayon-like quality, which is cool; the character design of Ponyo shifts throughout the film from standard Miyazaki design (think Mei from Totoro) to something out of a later John Hubley/Tissa David/Michael Sporn independent films. Not that there’s anything wrong with it – in fact, I found that quite refreshing.

Going in, I hoped this feature might have the potential of being Miyazaki’s most widely accessible (to western audiences) film, but it isn’t. It seems to be even more steeped in Japanese folklore and cultural sensibility than Spirited Away, once again challenging established Hollywood “rules” of narrative storytelling.

With all this in mind, I do recommend the Ponyo experience, especially to small kids and parents of young children. The good news is that Miyazaki is still making “classic” Japanese anime features that push the medium and can blow your mind… just this time don’t forget your meds.

  • Jerry, your review made me laugh a few times. I look forward to the “Miyazaki-Hendrix Experience” that is Ponyo.

  • Mike

    i watched the first half of ponyo online a few months back.. it was all in japanese so i couldn’t understand what they were saying, but i could follow what was goin on.. i didn’t finish it because i didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself, but i have to say… the first 30 or 40 minutes were probably the cutest thing i’ve ever seen. all the mannerisms of the little boy were so spot on and adorable. i love the quality of animation at ghibli even if it’s limited.. me and a group of friends are having a marathon of miyazaki movies in anticipation of ponyo’s august release. i can’t wait. it’s a joy seeing traditional animation up on the big screen again. especially when it’s a miyazaki film.

  • i watched the japanese version on youtube, i really liked it, can’t wait to see it in english ^^

  • conscious

    i especially enjoyed how he ‘told’ the background story of the boy’s family and their inner struggles by just having the audience follow the young mother’s daily routine. just bloody brilliant!

  • GhaleonQ

    Yeah, this is VERY Japanese-children’s-story because it’s…a Japanese children’s story. Of course, failing to be universal doesn’t diminish its quality, it just means that it may alienate the people who understand Japan as Spirited Away and Final Fantasy. It’s amazingly good, though.

  • dbborroughs

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve seen the film three or four times now and my feelings seem to mirror yours. I’m curious as to why this film is being picked for a big push by Disney when there have been other better films from Ghibli since its going to confuse a good many people.

  • Walty

    Domo Arragoto, Mr. Beckoto

  • Carlos

    Yeah, despite the story being… lacking in more ways than one, this still seems like the perfect gateway movie for young kids into the world of Miyazaki. It’s definitely new and enjoyable, even if you’ll mutter a few “huh?”s now and then. Give it a chance, but don’t think it will be your favorite.

  • hellohue

    I saw this for the first time the other day on imported DVD, subbed with which I assume used the script from the Disney sub. Heavens! And already it’s one of my favourite Miyazaki films.

    I think to get the best review of the film, you really need it from someone under 9 years old. Upon my first watching of Totoro, for instance, I enjoyed it, sure, but didn’t appreciate the simplicity in story. Thankfully, before watching Ponyo I’d read an interview in which Miyazaki said something like, “I’m making a film which can be understood by 5 year olds, even if it cannot by 50 year olds”. And that’s how you should watch Ponyo. If you’re looking for plot holes and bugging questions to be answered, well, they won’t be. Because, as a 5 year old, not everything is clear. The clearest thing in the film is that Ponyo loves Sousuke, and that’s all a child really needs to know to understand and enjoy the film. Saying that, I find the other character’s intentions, albeit after a couple of viewings, become clear.

    The music is fantastic also, some of Joe Hisaishi’s best work for sure, and the perfect collaboration with Miyazaki’s visuals. The score almost lets you forgive him for the ending theme’s parasite-like catchiness.

    And on the animation front, about halfway through the film is probably one of the most thrilling, uplifting damn near sublime animated sequences I’ve ever seen. The absolute childlike joy that washed over me watching this is enough for me ensure I’ll love this film forever.

  • Andrew Kieswetter

    Jerry,your review of Ponyo makes me more eager to see the movie!
    It’s supposed to be released here in Australia in September & I will be seeing it on its opening weekend here.

  • Thanks for the heads-up. Are you planning to go see Miyazaki himself at Comic-Con or at the Academy in Beverly Hills right after the convention?

  • christy

    nice comments hellohue!
    i wasn’t really psyched for this but now i can’t WAIT!
    i think simplicity is underated. It’s not easy to be simple and minimal and remain exciting and appealing.
    ‘simple’ and ‘childlike’ sounds like an breath of fresh air to me!
    a pot brownie might make it sweeter too! hahahah.
    does anyone know if this shows anywhere (i’m in ny) in japanese with subtitles? i kinda hate watching the dubbed versions-they always seem kind of off to me-

  • Christine

    I watched this online (subbed) with my 3 and 5 year old. Even with me reading them the subtitles, they were totally engrossed and thought it was a great story and a great movie. I got to hear about it endlessly from them for the next few days.

    Actually, the quote was : “I intended to make a film that 5 year old children can understand. They don’t watch it by logic but by feeling. However, it wasn’t easy.” (from http://www.ghibliworld.com/newsarchive.html, scroll down to July 17). That said, Miyazaki did what he set out to do.

    As a parent it was nice to have a movie with no princesses or romances (my brother calls it the “Disney “f***-me eyes”), or fight scenes. As a long time Miyazaki fan, it was a beautiful film…Ponyo’s transformations when she does magic are wonderfully smooth, and the underwater scenes are breathtaking. Can’t wait to see it in the theater.

  • Jerry,

    Did you see the American dubbed version, or the Japanese version? My wife and I are seeing the JP version on our vacation to San Francisco next week.

  • Tommy – I saw the Disney version being released next month, dubbed in English.

  • Andrew Osmond

    Great post, many thanks. I’ve only seen extracts from Ponyo… However, regarding Miyazaki’s previous films, I feel they’re steeped less in Japanese folklore and cultural sensibility than in Miyazaki’s _own_ sensibility and personal motifs. IMO, one of the best ways to understand a Miyazaki film is to watch other Miyazaki films, as they often hang together. (E.g. try double-billing Howl’s Moving Castle with Porco Rosso.)

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Ponyo, and thanks for not spoiling anything. I’ll have to wait another month before seeing it myself, provided I don’t cave in and import the DVD from Japan.

  • Great review though I do have to disagree with you on a couple of points.

    -This movie is definitely geared towards both children AND adults as are most of Miyazaki’s films. Children will understand his clean story structures where as adults are meant to feel something a little deeper. I think Ponyo does a great job of giving you a sense of nostalgia and longing to go back to a time when you just took things as they came.

    I think it’s hard to read the character’s motives because Miyazaki tends to not really make his “villains” evil but instead just conflicted by their human emotions (e.g. Ponyo’s father doesn’t want her to become a human, Sosuke’s mother is trying her best to raise a child when her husband is barely home…) no one has one real reason for why they do what they do mainly because there are so many things little weighing down on them.

    I think what makes this such a great film is that it is rich with variegated themes but on the surface it’s rather plain (with the exception of the gorgeous water animation). Maybe the nostalgic feeling is easier to be felt from a person growing up in the country sides of Asia, but who doesn’t remember eating an ice cream cone mixed with tears when you experienced loss as a child?

    I encourage everyone to see this film in theaters, not only to enjoy it but to also help support traditional animation at its best!

  • steve brown

    Is it just my imagination, or are those fish/waves some kind of tribute to Frederic Back’s The Mighty River?

  • shawn

    my local theater only played the dubbed version and, still, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will definitely find a subtitled version and compare my experience in the future. I do prefer some of Miyazaki’s other films but I can’t deny the appeal and charm of Ponyo. The majority of the audience was under the age of 12 and I was sitting next to a couple of families and heard the responses of the children during the film. It was refreshing to see a hand-drawn movie provoke such reactions from the children, who, earlier… were just shown the usual barrage of 3D/CGI trailers with little or no reaction. Miyazaiki’s work is timeless.