***originally written 18 February 2010***
Ponyo is the latest effort from the wonderful Japanese hand-drawn animation folk at Studio Ghibli and concerns a small red fish that obtains the magical powers to transform into a five year old girl, thus unwittingly triggering the apocalyptic descent of the moon. Obviously. This fish is named Ponyo by a small boy named Sosuke, and the two of them immediately bond, thus Ghibli spearhead Hayao Miyazaki constructs one of the more bizarre fairytales in a long history of weird imaginings.
Also present is Ponyo’s wizard-of-the-sea father Fujimoto whose exact motivations remain shrouded for much of the runtime, and reminded me of nothing more than a red-haired Davina McCall having a bad-hair day whilst dressing up like David Bowie. With the voice of Liam Neeson. Early on he seems to be a sinister figure, but as the story comes into focus this shifts somewhat. Ponyo’s mother seems to be all-of-the-sea, manifesting as a Cate Blanchett-voiced queen not a million miles away from her turn as Galadriel.
However the film works best and is most comfortably enjoyable when scaled down to family interactions. The simplest and most effective moments coming from scenes such as Sosuke, his mother and Ponyo sitting down to dinner together. These domestic sequences also evoke the film’s best laughs and recall the tension-free warmth of My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki’s finest achievement.
When things turn more sensational the animators get to show off some dazzling visual flare. This is a deeply sensual and multi-coloured movie. Yet the more epic-in-scale moments seem strangely at odds with the cosier sections, making Ponyo a bit of a schizophrenic watch. Miyazaki also continues to play with themes that have dominated all of his work, especially our mistreatment of nature. In this instance the oceans, be it through pollution or intensive fishing.
Ghibli have always specialised in family-orientated entertainment, but Ponyo is the film most directly-aimed at the very young that the studio has produced. Thus some older viewers may feel alienated but some of the content and distanced from the storyline, which hangs on the kind of suspension of logic that even the very young might have trouble with. Sitting in the cinema watching this I overheard a number of youngsters asking their parents why exactly certain things were happening. The parents struggling to piece together a convincing explanation. This is Miyazaki’s fairytale. Accept it.
Certainly after Howl’s Moving Castle and Tales Of Earthsea, Ponyo feels like a concerted effort from Ghibli to move back to basics, even in some of the character design. But I wonder if they haven’t moved a little too far in the other direction. Don’t get me wrong, Ponyo is frequently delightful, but it lacked a certain something. That certain magic that the likes of My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away conjured effortlessly. I can’t put my finger on it. There’s plenty here to enjoy though, if you have the saccharine stomach for it.