Miyazaki’s Ponyo makes a splash

Hayao Miyazaki, the mastermind behind Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Totoro, has come out with another beautiful movie to add to his already impressive filmography.

Ponyo is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Little Mermaid,” but contains a distinctly Miyazaki-esque touch. The new “mermaid” is a little goldfish named Brunhilda, later renamed Ponyo by the human boy, Sousuke, who finds her and takes her to preschool with him. Ponyo’s father, a sea wizard, is distraught at his daughter’s disappearance and eventually contrives a way to have her return. However, Ponyo doesn’t give up that easily. She drinks one of her father’s magical potions, starts to grow legs and arms, and then uses her newfound powers to free her other goldfish sisters to help her find Sousuke.

Ponyo, as is characteristic of Miyazaki’s films, has an interesting duality between man and nature. Ponyo’s father, it turns out, has forsaken living on land as a human because of the way that humans treat the sea, always polluting it and wreaking havoc with its ecosystem. He instead turns to the ocean as the source of his power and his home. Interestingly, the film explores the relationship between magical and non-magical worlds. While Ponyo is transformed into a girl, she is unable to perform magic, but can do it when she changes back into a goldfish. At the film’s end, she must make the choice of giving up her magic and living on land or keeping it and continuing to live under the sea.

Fans of mythologies and fairy tales from around the world will delight in the references and roots of magic explored in Ponyo. From classical myths to Japanese folklore to the intriguing inventions of Miyazaki, Ponyo is a feast of characters and enchantment, sure to please viewers looking for a new perspective on modern magic.

While Ponyo is entertaining, movie-goers are advised that, at heart, it is a children’s film. It does not have the same scope as Princess Mononoke or other deeper films of Miyazaki. This doesn’t prevent it from being a good film to watch or a fun experience, but it does mean that older viewers might find themselves wondering why certain things are happening the way they are — such as characters’ laughing at silly jokes, or the little kids’ being so willing to accept the balance between the magical and the mundane.

However, Ponyo allows Miyazaki a chance to exercise some of the whimsicality not seen since his celebrated character Catbus in Totoro. Ponyo’s father moves around in a chariot made of squids; he can summon schools of fish with a wave of his hand; and in order to survive on land and retain his magic, he must keep his feet wet at all times. Ponyo’s character also celebrates the strangeness of the undersea world, whether by her exotic name Brunhilda or by her immediate penchant for ham.

Overall, Ponyo is an admirable addition to Miyazaki’s films. Fans of his work should definitely check the movie out, keeping in mind that it’s much more like a Totoro for this generation than a film that is meant to ask deep questions. It can still be thought-provoking, but it does so on a reduced scale. Viewers be warned, though: the ending song of Ponyo is extremely catchy, if a little too sing-song, and will be stuck in your head for days to come.

As an animated film, Ponyo is highly recommended. Given the glut of computer animation crowding the children’s market at the box office these days, Ponyo’s careful, hand-drawn animation is a rare treat.