When I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s newest feature Ponyo a year ago (a subtitled copy burgled from the internets) I was disappointed, mostly for unfair reasons. I’ve made no bones around here about my unrepentant enthusiasm for all things Miyazaki, but my obvious preference was for the dark, high fantasy of Nausicaä and Mononoke, a mien Miyazaki appeared to get comfortable with after Porco Rosso. Ponyo felt like a return to the tune of Totoro and Kiki, rightful classics in their own right, but aimed at an audience so much younger that I felt estranged.
A second viewing of Ponyo, this time on the big screen, helped smooth away my doubts and shame me into renewing my faith in the master. The film is fantastic and, far from being an experience alienating to the fools who call themselves adults, underscores the qualities both old and young can discover in a fairy tale. It’s true that Miyazaki privileges the experience of young children here in both entertainment and perspective, but it would be wrong to read this as the reductive gesture endemic to much of the animated media geared towards the very young.
Ponyo is actively driven from the perspective of 5-year-old Sōsuke (voice of Frankie Jonas), a character based on Miyazaki’s own son, Goro. Sōsuke, wandering along the shores of his hillside home, discovers a small fish with the round face of a girl trapped in a bit of garbage. Freeing her from the trash, he names her Ponyo and begins carrying her around in a bucket. It’s never entirely clear whether Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) is the mermaid Sōsuke increasingly comes to see her as: when Sōsuke shows his mother (Tina Fey) his half-human half-fish discovery, she reacts in a way we’re unable to distinguish from the indulgence of a child’s fanciful imagination. Miyazaki’s insistence is that this thing we call “real” does not matter, and that is his greatest asset as a storyteller: the line between the real and the imaginative allegorical is as ambivalent as it is unimportant. We’re never pressed to parse whether Sōsuke is imagining the fantastical events that follow or not, we’re simply asked to accept the validity of either explanation.
Ponyo, we observe in the first wordless minutes of the film, is the daughter of an undersea sorcerer (Liam Neeson) who escapes to survey the outside world. When she comes into contact with Sōsuke, the two fall in a kind of elemental love most strongly experienced by children, before the self-destructive journeys of puberty. She decides to stay with Sōsuke and become human, which leads to a chain of events that throw the world out of balance, engulfing Sōsuke’s seaside hamlet in a near-hurricane. Sōsuke and the now-human Ponyo embark on a short journey as Ponyo’s mother (Cate Blanchett) is summoned to quell the disorder and resolve the upstart girl’s identity for good.
This is as loose an interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale as has ever been made, but the source material here is only important insofar as Miyazaki can make it his own. His usual hallmarks return splendidly: the innocence of love, the tenuous balance of ecology, the primacy of visual experience, the lack of categorical good and evil, the beauty of the everyday, and the joys of minutiae. Ponyo unfolds unhurriedly and with a mysterious vibrancy. It is both rote and predictable to describe his films as “magical,” but that’s really the word we need. Is it the de facto belief in magic that allows a child to accept the existence of the fantastic without hesitation or suspicion, without a corresponding search for meaning? I would say so. Miyazaki’s gift is to let the rest of us do the same.
Phillip Stephens is a film critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.