For a moment I actually forgot the last time I had seen a hand-drawn animated film in the theaters. It occurred to me later that there was Persepolis not so very long ago, but in truth the strengths of that film lie elsewhere than the art of it all. Ponyo is life in beautiful cartoon motion in which two vibrant worlds, one above the sea and one below, intermingle in almost symphonic fashion. We’ve not seen such glorious animation since Spirited Away. That’s no surprise as this is Hayao Miyazaki at the top of his game. Nothing about Ponyo suggests that this is a minor work.
Where to even begin? The animation is enough to make you gasp in awe. Miyazaki may have outdone himself, because I’d easily place the artwork here among his very best. The opening sequence is burgeoning with serene sea life, painted in gorgeous visuals that put anything Finding Nemo has to offer to shame. Nature is handled here with the utmost care, and that we experience it in such beauty only reinforces Miyazaki’s longstanding environmentalist theme that not surprisingly is intrinsically tied to this story. Equally etched in my mind after the film was the magnificent sequence of newly human Ponyo running across the waves as Sosuke and his mother race the storm home. Joe Hisaishi’s score swells along with the sea, waves take the form of giant fish, and the image of a little girl sprinting toward the only thing outside the ocean she knows becomes unforgettable.
And there’s a backbone to all this beauty. The basic concept of sea-princess wants to become human has been covered before, but the imagination behind this telling runs wild, and we waste no time into diving into a world that is nothing if not magical. It’s remarkable to see an animated film sustain such an epic feel without even a villain to menace the characters. Miyazaki’s worlds avoid such clear-cut depictions of good and evil and despite how fanciful Ponyo may be, this quality lends it that bit of authenticity that your average animated fare lacks.
And cartoon or not, this is a film for all ages. The heart of the story may be a fantastic childhood adventure, but the characters range from the young to the old to the ancient. I was particularly taken with the depiction of Sosuke’s mother, both a concerned parent and a frustrated wife, brought to life by delightful voice-work by Tina Fey. Speaking of the dubbing, it’s all handled quite well. Despite some rather big names attached, not one overrides the character with their star vocal presence.
Finally, a Miyazaki film wouldn’t be what it is without a handful of moments of the ordinary that somehow eclipse all the showy animation and endear themselves to me on a very personal level. I’m talking moments like Totoro standing at the bus stop in the rain and Chihiro riding up in the elevator with the radish spirit. In Ponyo, my favorite scene of such occurs after a great flood, when Ponyo and Sosuke on their little ship come upon a young family in a rowboat. The family’s infant child exchanges some indescribable stares with Ponyo and it would seem they develop some unspoken bond. It’s a thing of beauty. But really, everything here is.