Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea
What It Is
Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful new movie follows the unusual relationship between five-year-old Sosuke (voiced in this English language version by the Jonas Brothers’ younger brother Frankie) and a goldfish named Ponyo (Miley Cyrus’ little sister Noah). Normally, Susuke spends his days at preschool or visiting with the clients at the senior citizens’ home where his mother Lisa (Tiny Fey) works. They live in a house that overlooks the sea, where Sosuke sails a toy boat that looks like the cargo ship piloted by his dad (Matt Damon). One morning, he saves Ponyo, who has her oddly human-looking head stuck in a glass jar, and they become fast friends. The plot is complicated by the fact she is magical, being the daughter of a human Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) and the Goddess of Mercy, Granmamare (Cate Blanchett)—when Ponyo decides she wants to transform form a fish to a girl, she upsets the balance of nature, causing a huge and life-threatening storm. Though Fujimoto, a remarkably complex and androgynous figure nursing a mighty rage over humans’ pollution of the sea, tries to bring her home, Ponyo proves an independent-minded, utterly charming girl.
Why It’s Fun
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Ponyo features Miyazaki’s signature 2D animation, quirky and enchanting. Its story is also typically strange (typical for this brilliant Japanese artist, whose work includes Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle). So, unlike most U.S.-made family fare, this movie is unpredictable and full of fun surprises. These include Sosuke’s frankly surprising conversations with senior citizens (Betty White, Lily Tomlin, and Cloris Leachman), who tease him and appreciate his optimism. They also include the wonderful image of little Ponyo, now with feet and hands, running atop a huge fish that seems to be chasing Sosuke and his mother as they drive through the storm, and Ponyo’s seemingly impetuous decision to bestow a kiss on a baby’s scrunched-up face, thus healing his cold and astonishing his mother. She and Sosuke spend a lovely evening getting dry after the storm, enjoying his mother’s honey-milk and noodles with ham (Ponyo’s absolutely favorite human food is ham).
Who’s Going To Love It
It’s a rare movie that satisfies young viewers and their young-at-heart parents. And yet, a fun as this one can be, some children at the preview screening were restless by the end (it runs 100 minutes, a tad long). Refreshingly not 3D and less slam-bam and loud than most animation these days, the movie offers Miyazaki’s customary idiosyncratic, sometimes rambling storytelling, with delicate drawings, fluid borders between life-forms on land and in the ocean, and imaginative plot turns.
What To Be Aware Of
The storm features big waves, dark skies, and thunder, though Lisa is so determined, calm, and reassuring that even Sosuke and Ponyo don’t worry too much. The film does offer up Sosuke as a very, very mature five-year-old: “You’ll do the right thing,” his mother tells him as she leaves him and Ponyo alone one night, “You’re only five but you’re very smart!” He stays mostly calm, piloting his candle-driven boat to find his missing mother, but has a moment of upset when he finds her empty car on the road. Very frightened and sad for a moment, he recovers his confidence when Ponyo encourages him and takes his hand. He is also called on to promise a pure and undying love for Ponyo in order to save the world from unleashed magical "elixirs" and restore nature’s balance. It’s a big responsibility, one that parents might wonder about, but in this magical world, he seems completely undaunted.
9 out of 10
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake no ue no Ponyo)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, Peter Sohn
Cast: Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Betty White, Cloris Leachman
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
US Premiere: August 14, 2009 (General release)
UK Premiere: August 12, 2009 (General release)