Though no less pleasurable or imaginative, Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo is more plainspoken than its three hulking predecessors -- Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle. In this tale of a tiny mermaid who wants to be human, Miyazaki has lightened some of the usual dark corners but keeps his storytelling skills sharp.
Nor has Miyazaki let us down in the imagery department: The mighty tsunami waves that rise in the guise of herculean fish bringing our dear Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, Miley's little sister) to land and flooding the place she might one day call home are downright enchanting. Article continues below
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before any of that happens, Ponyo is just the oldest sister in a sizable school of mermaids under the control of her father Fujimoto, voiced here by Liam Neeson. Fujimoto has a large bonfire of red hair atop his head and possesses the ability to live underwater thanks to a bit of wizardry -- both his and Miyazaki's. On the lowest deck of his vessel, which looks something like a houseboat with tentacles, he fills a well that he says will eventually rid the earth of those on land who have mistreated his kingdom.
The land, on the other hand, is exactly where Ponyo wants to go. Sneaking off one morning, she meets young Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, the youngest of the pop star brothers), his boat captain father (Matt Damon), and a retirement home worker (Tina Fey), and they spend the day together at school and at his mother's work. Fujimoto finds her thanks to a gang of waves with menacing eyes, but Ponyo has acquired a taste for humanity. In a strangely suggestive scene, all of Ponyo's tiny sisters and brothers gather around her bubble and emit their magic until Ponyo has become a five-year-old girl with the power of the ocean at her little feet.
As with all of Miyazaki’s films, mother nature's inherent beauty and awesome power underscore the clarity of the emotional landscape. Ponyo's human arrival births a tsunami that sinks Sosuke's town, sending his father's ship adrift. It also encases his mother in the underwater retirement home where she holds court with Ponyo's mother, a luminous spirit who offers to make Ponyo human for good if she relinquishes her magic abilities. Less foreboding in its eco-friendly notions, the film ultimately shows more interest in magic than in message, unfolding with the simplicity of a bedtime fairytale and never devolving into rhetoric.
Ponyo comes from a great line of Miyazaki heroines. Not a warrior like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa, she falls more in line with the playful, intelligent daughters of Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro. And like all those girls, she has an amazed little boy cowering behind her. This childhood bond is portrayed with great sincerity; Miyazaki never defines the relationship between the two rascals as romantic, familial, or platonic, but their devotion is inscrutable.