Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo) — He said, She said — movie review — screener!
Posted on August 11, 2009 by Chris & Kris
It’s hard to be disappointed with a Miyazaki film. The animation is always a cut above industry standards, with so much attention paid to the most minute details that every movement of a character, from the simplest shrug to the wildest gesticulation, amazes with its wholly natural quality. Backdrops too, leave the viewer in awe, with landscapes so peacefully pastoral they can’t help yearning to step foot in their unmarred splendor. But they’re far from just pretty pictures. Rather, they further serve to bolster Miyazaki’s typical narratives of eco-consciousness and global conservation (Miyazaki was green before it was cool), which more often than not prove complicated enough for both children and adults to enjoy. I say more often than not, because, sadly, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (aka: Ponyo) stands the first true exception to the rule.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is the tale of a quasi-fish with magical powers that transforms into a little girl in order to hang out with an equally little boy. It’s essentially a Little Mermaid tale, only with protagonists too young to rationalize anything beyond the desires of their tummies, and an even happier-go-lucky lilt than Disney’s saccharine survey of Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic source material. There’s no grand message of bettering your environment, saving your land from catastrophe, or even a moral regarding the beauty of self sacrifice. Just two little kids hanging out, having fun, exploring, and eating. – until the film’s abrupt twist, where Miyazaki attempts to shoehorn an epic conflict in the span of twenty minutes.
And therein lay the problems. Had Ponyo let itself remain nothing more than a depiction of two kids and their magical friendship, I wouldn’t have minded the lack of a narrative conflict. Yet the sudden onset of earth-shaking cataclysm and its potential resolution through a deep-seated romantic love between five year-olds struck me as both farcical and perverse. Furthermore, the inconsistent treatment of characters left suspension of disbelief nigh impossible. Every moment depicting true, childlike inquisitiveness, was counteracted with sequences of alarmingly unconcerned adults. For example, you’d think that a young mother would be alarmed when a pudgy little girl screams, morphs into a gelatinous chicken-head, runs-across a body of water, grabs her baby’s face, and aggressively delivers an Eskimo-kiss, but apparently not in the world of Ponyo (I won’t even bother with the problems of the flood).
In the end, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea starts off strong, with its lush visuals and promise of the usual Ghibli splendor, but ultimately wavers and bores with its illogical, slapdash storyline. Children will certainly find many things to enjoy, but more discerning viewers can probably find more interesting titles in the Ghibli back-catalog.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea sure is a mouthful, but the story may leave you a little hungry for more. The first 2/3 of the film is magical and polished, and so garsh-darn cute and sweet you’ll get cavities. But then everything starts to spin out of control like the tsunami invoked in the climax — of course all the chaos is caused by Ponyo, although she soon becomes the catalyst for salvation. Everything seems rushed and edited, almost incomplete. Suddenly, incompetence and disobedience are “rewarded” with the fate of the world. And, oddly, as Chris pointed out, cataclysmic doom approaches, but no one bats an eye.
Also, when compared to the usual morals à la The Lion King conveying the consequences of honoring your elders, Ponyo is a bit of a brat. Maybe they were attempting to enforce the similarities between the old and young characters, and in most cases, in this cross between Cocoon and the Little Mermaid, a compete role reversal.
I really wish the concept of pollution was more prominent, so we wouldn’t wonder why all these otherwise polite townsfolk were suddenly drowned or driven from their homes. I could speculate that the townsfolk were likened to the unsuspecting, innocuous sea creatures being robbed of a healthy, habitable environs, but that would, pardon the pun, be going off the deep end. Maybe a hybrid realm, as the film suggests, is the only way to dissolve the rift between landlubbers and reefriders. Hopefully the Disney-dubbed version will verbally expand on this topic (we saw the Japanese version).
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea‘s redemption is the magical realm Studio Ghibli creates and welcomes everyone into with open arms. There is no denying the enchantment.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea opens in select theatres on August 14 featuring the vocal talent of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas (Jonas Bros’ little brother), Noah Cyrus (Miley’s little sister), Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White.