The innocence of childhood is something that you’d think would be easy to portray in films but time and time again Hollywood efforts veer between patronising or sickly sweet, rarely finding that sweet spot of honesty. Yet, when you turn to Japanese animators Studio Ghibli you can find such gems as Ponyo: a movie about making friends and being good.
Loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki tells the story of how Brunhilde, a magical fish girl, escapes her wizard father and forms a bond with a 5 year old boy called Sōsuke that she meets by a cliff, who dubs her ‘Ponyo’.
Recaptured, she breaks into her father’s magical store and using her new powers becomes human so she can track Sōsuke down, but in doing so she unwittingly unleashes the magic of the ocean and sets the delicate balance of nature askew. Using a toy boat that Ponyo magically grows to carry them, the pair must set off over flood waters where only tree tops are high enough to break the surface in order to find Sōsuke’s mother trapped on the other side of the bay.
When written as above the plot seems like high stakes and magical intrigue when really those elements are a minor part of the story. The main bulk of screen time is spent with the blossoming friendship between Ponyo and Sōsuke. Sōsuke’s desire to protect the fish he finds at the beginning is continued with the human version he finds himself confronted with. “Ponyo?” he asks, on seeing her returned to him. Excitedly he tells Lisa, his mother, “Look, it’s Ponyo!” and in a western film this would likely be tolerated or dismissed. Yet in Ponyo his mother goes along with it without a hint of patronisation or rationalisation, which leads to one of the greatest scenes in this, or any, film: noodles and ham.
Oh yes. In a movie that contains a magical tsunami, pre-historic aquatic life, and a giant goddess of the sea, it is the simple 10 minutes we spend with Ponyo, Sōsuke and Lisa in a house during a storm that will stick out. They check the water still works. They check the gas still works. They get dried off and thump about the place. And Lisa makes the most delicious looking food of noodles, egg, spring onions and ham that you will ever see. Ponyo flips (literally) with joy and so will you. By such glorious exultation of the every day Ponyo digs in deep to a family appeal that delights all audiences, helped in no small part by a character such as Lisa (Tina Fey in the English Dub) who is just as full of life as the children.
After the influence of CGI had snuck into the preceding Studio Ghibli movies, Ponyo marked a return to hand-drawn animation, with Miyazaki himself animating as well. Over 170,000 separate cells were drawn and the quality is there on the screen. This isn’t quality in the sense of ‘hyper detail’, but instead the effort has gone to give the whole movie a free-flowing child like quality. Primary colours and even the use of crayon for the background art help give the movie a subconsciously warm and inviting feel. It’s also clear that great effort was spent on animating water and the sea. It froths, foams, sways, and pulses. The ocean teams with life in a way that looks effortless, which is a testament to the artistry on display.
To go back to the magical elements, this is where Ponyo falters a little. There is such delight in spending time with Ponyo and Sōsuke that when the action switches to grandiose ‘world at peril’ stakes it devalues the child-like connection that you are enjoying. There is a sense that these sections which increase the scale of the story (although we never see what is happening outside of this one coastal town) conversely add little to it, especially when the ultimate conclusion that fixes everything is such a minor one. If the movie had been boy meets fish girl and they set off to rescue his mother then that would have been enough.
Regardless of the story arguably running away from Miyazaki, Ponyo is a fantastic movie that was a box office smash on release. By revelling in the pure hearted innocence of 5-year-olds yet giving them a respectful setting to live in, Miyazaki has crafted a movie that can appeal equally to all ages (rather than stuffing in jarring parts to keep adults interested, as is so often the case elsewhere). Like Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo is a children’s movie to cherish.
Words by Michael Record