In a small town by the sea lives five year-old Sosuke, high on a cliff overlooking the Inland Sea. One morning whie playing on the rocky beach below his house, he discovers a goldfish named Ponyo, her head stuck in a jam jar. Sosuke resuces Ponyo and keeps her in a green plastic pail. Both Ponyo and Sosuke are fascinated by each other and promise to stay firm friends until Ponyo's father – once human, now a sorcerer who lives deep under the sea - forces her to return with him to the ocean depths. What follows is an amazing underwater adventure for all ages....
At a guess, Ponyo, the latest fantasy from Japan’s animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki, might be regarded as a cute, fun treat for a very limited audience: kids up to the age of 10. It may be heretical to say so, but I suspect teens and adults will find this simple tale a stultifying bore, neither particularly clever nor meaningful.
That’s hugely disappointing, given the director’s distinguished track record (Princess Mononoke, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) and the fact that the English-language version of Ponyo was co-directed by Pixar Animation guru John Lasseter, with a screenplay adapted by E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’s Melissa Mathison. And it’s a wasted effort in view of the prodigious voice talent involved, most notably Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey and Liam Neeson.
The plot, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, lacks the wry, hip humour, sophistication and adult sensibilities that are the hallmarks of every Pixar film. And while it’s illogical, that probably won’t bother its young audience.
The odd couple at the centre of the film are Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister), and a five-year-old boy, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, kid brother of the bewilderingly popular singing trio). Perky Ponyo’s a goldfish with a human face, who sneaks away from the underwater lair of her cranky father Fujimoto (Neeson), a red-haired, once-human sorcerer, and gets washed up on the shore of a Japanese fishing village.
She’s adopted by Sosuke, who lives in a cottage atop a hill with his mother Lisa (Fey) and frequently-absent seafaring father (an under-used Damon). After licking a cut on Sosuke’s thumb, Ponyo is transformed into a little girl, upsetting nature’s balance and unleashing a fearsome tsunami. Her father recaptures her, but not for long, and chaos reigns until the arrival of her mother, an ocean goddess (Blanchett, sounding weirdly, jarringly ethereal, while everyone else uses normal voices).
The hand-drawn animation is often beautiful, although the sea is crudely shown as a mass of heaving, deep blue waves until it morphs into a shimmering, translucent wonderland.
The excitement level rarely reaches great heights, except for several scenes including Ponyo dancing on the backs of huge fish during the storm, and Lisa’s desperate car ride. As a fish or a human strangely garbed in a large pair of white pantaloons, Ponyo isn’t especially appealing or amusing: she’s no Nemo.
There’s a kind of Greek chorus of three elderly ladies (voiced by Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin) at a rest home where Lisa works, but none spouts anything memorable.
The ecological theme – a common element in Miyazaki’s films – is typified here by Fujimoto, who despises humankind for polluting the planet, the tsunami and glimpses of a graveyard of sunken vessels, but none of this is especially revelatory. We’re warned that the Earth’s future is at peril, but there’s no sense of dread of an approaching Apocalypse.
The dubbing is barely noticeable, evidently the only difference from the original, in line with the policy of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli that no other changes be made for the international market.