Hayao Miyazaki's latest fable is beautiful and whimsical. Unfortunately, it's also a little cold

Published August 15, 2009 11:14AM (EDT)

Image from "Ponyo."
Image from "Ponyo."

The work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is almost universally adored -- just not by me. I've already written about my failure to be enchanted by Miyazaki's work, despite the fact that I often enjoy wavy, dream-logic narratives of the kind Miyazaki specializes in. I do appreciate the artistry of some of his images, and I love his tendency toward subtle coloration rather than garishness. But his stories, and often his character design, just leave me cold. I know I'm supposed to be magically transported by his fanciful tales and his whimsical grandiosity, but they make me listless: I just don't swoon with delight at the idea of grannies being turned into onions, or whatever.

I wish I could say Miyazaki's latest, "Ponyo" -- its Japanese title is "Gake no ue no Ponyo," or "Ponyo on the Cliff," although the version being released here in the States by Disney is a dubbed, English-language one -- changed my mind. It didn't. But this story of a small girl (she's actually half-human, half-fish) and her friendship with the boy who rescues her from tragedy, loses her, and finds her again, is certainly simple and modest, as well as, at times, quite beautiful to look at. The magical little fish girl -- she's the Ponyo of the title, and she's voiced by Noah Cyrus, younger sister of Miley -- is the daughter of the wizard Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), himself a former human who lives beneath the sea. Fujimoto, angry with humans for spoiling the ocean environment, is hatching a plan in which the sea and its creatures will rise up to regain their rightful place on Earth. Fujimoto is fearful for his little daughter's safety when she's first swept out of the ocean and rescued by 5-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, of the same family that gave us the Jonas Brothers), who lives with his mother by the sea. At that point, Ponyo, like her many identical-looking sisters, is just a little tadpole squirt -- she's like a miniature baby doll in a swimmy red dress. But when Fujimoto gets her back to the ocean, he learns that all she really wants to do is get back to Sosuke, with whom she's already forged a bond. She also wants to be human -- she has, among other things, discovered a taste for ham -- but if she makes that transition, Fujimoto tells her sternly, she will lose all her magical powers.

"Ponyo" represents a more pared-down Miyazaki; the movie is rated G, and the story it tells is a relatively simple one (allowing for the usual Miyazaki squirreliness) that little kids can easily grasp. There are many scenes involving the adventures of Ponyo and Sosuke: When the coastal area in which Sosuke lives is flooded by a tsunami (caused by Ponyo's attempts to become human, which result in an imbalance in nature), Ponyo uses her magic to "grow" a toy boat to a usable size, and the two embark on a journey to find Ponyo's mom. Ponyo and Sosuke are appealing enough, with their chubby, rounded limbs and wider, even more rounded eyes.

And, as always with Miyazaki, there are plenty of good-looking images: The picture opens with a lovely wordless sequence that introduces us to a number of wild and marvelous-looking ocean creatures, accompanied by a symphonic score that's as graceful as gently waving seaweed. It's a gorgeous, hypnotic opening, rendered in softly blended blues and greens, dotted with families of translucent pearl-gray and pink jellyfish drifting through the depths. My favorite image, though, is that of a submerged coastal road that is now free of cars; instead, numerous types of fish from ancient times, recently resurrected from the depths, swim placidly along this underwater highway as if they had every right to be there. "Ponyo" hasn't changed my mind about Miyazaki. But I'm willing to accept and enjoy this little window into the dream life of fish.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Disney Movies Ponyo