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.