Hayao Miyazaki has gained a reputation as a director whose films sophisticated parents buy in order to give their kids a dose of culture alongside their entertainment. At first glance, Ponyo seems like it's tailor-made for this audience - it's a love story inspired by a Hans Christian Anderson tale that extolls environmentalism, the innocence of children, and the virtues of motherhood. Its pace is slow, almost melancholic. Visually it most resembles a children's storybook put in motion. And the kids seem to love it - I've known a number of parents whose children forced them to watch this movie endlessly on repeat. Keeping that all in mind, however, it's still a disappointment that Ponyo is the only Miyazaki film to not work on most levels for his largest audience: adults. As a film, Ponyo is badly paced, structured, and conceived - but at least it's one with an audience who'll love it, with flashes of artistic mastery to boot.
Thematically, Ponyo's main problem is that it's a film preoccupied with humanity that doesn't manage to convey recognizably human characters. Unlike Miyazaki's earlier My Neighbor Totoro, which contains a relatable and heartwarming parent-child relationship, there's something cold about the families here. Sosuke is superhumanly kind and patient for a five-year-old, more an adult's idea of a child than a real one. The mother's reckless driving is also nowhere near as funny as the film thinks it is - the fact that she constantly endangers her son kind of ruins her status as a maternal ideal. It's well known that Miyazaki idealizes women in his work. While this isn't much of an issue with his young heroines, there seems to be another layer of frigidity to his ideal of motherhood that keeps it from fitting into a compelling story. This film reminds me most of Mamoru Hosoda's Wolf Children in its simultaneous exultation of and lack of understanding of human emotion. The mothers in this film are platitudes wrapped around character designs. It reaches towards profundity, but ends up conflicted and awkward.
I appreciate the inclusion of an environmentalist message in a children's film, but the execution can be ham-fisted. It worked best in early scenes, like when Ponyo goes swimming in a marina only to get covered in muck and caught in a discarded bottle. Later on, this message morphs into something about an upcoming sea apocalypse that can only be stopped by Sosuke's love for Ponyo aka humanity metaphorically vowing to protect nature. The apocalypse aspect is just so beyond the scope of the simple love story that it's discordant. The only other Miyazaki film to go that big was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and that was a post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure starring a Christ figure. Unfortunately, the flood story is also deeply tied into the woman-as-nurture/nature-goddess part, making the whole thread easily the weakest part of the film. The heavy-handedness is also enhanced in the dub, which adds characters exclaiming lines like "humans are disgusting!" when encountering pollution.
The film itself is gorgeous. Within the Ghibli pantheon, this one excels visually with depictions of undersea creatures in their full squiggly, alien glory. This film might be unique in the extent to which aspects of the frame are constantly in motion. At one point in his collection of writings Starting Point: 1979-1996, Miyazaki recounts his desire to create an animated film about the infinitely detailed, microscopic workings of a tree. He admits that the endeavor would be bound to failure since it would result in an essentially plotless film, but it's still something he wanted to do at one point in his life. He did something like this in Ponyo, which I think led to a lot of the film's weaknesses while also being its greatest success. In Ponyo, Miyazaki really did animate an environment rather than mere settings and objects. Herds of sea lice scatter as Sosuke clambers over the shore rocks, Ponyo's sisters move around as a swarm of individually animated tadpoles, and ancient aquatic creatures follow Fujimoto's submarine as a sort of Ordovician entourage. In the film's most striking sequence, hundreds of waves in the shape of enormous, globulous fish raise a storm in order to carry Ponyo to Sosuke. This film set a new record for the number of images used to animate a Miyazaki film, and you can tell. The level and complexity of motion on display here is breathtaking. As someone who grew up by the seashore, this film's aquatic imagery probably engages me more than most. They're true to my recollections of nature in childhood. While it might leave people from different backgrounds cold, this alone lets me find a bit of warmth in this otherwise stilted film.
The Japanese language track is better than the English. Ponyo and Sosuke's voice actors were probably chosen because they were the younger siblings of Disney Channel stars, in this case Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas. The worst part in the English dub is Ponyo's extra screechy voice. In terms of general sound, Cyrus's Ponyo isn't that different from the Japanese, but it has a really harsh, piercing edge that makes it painful to listen to. Pretty much all of Ponyo's dialogue is screeching, which makes the film's main character a constant pain when onscreen in a speaking capacity. This is not good. Sosuke's voice sounds a good five years older than the character, which distracts from the fact that this film operates on a five-year-old's mental/imaginative level. He also doesn't have the acting chops to handle the character's more emotional scenes, with his final vow of eternal love to Ponyo coming off as particularly wooden. Liam Neeson is really distracting as Ponyo's father, Fujimoto, mostly because he's very recognizable and it's an awkward character to begin with. Scriptwise, they add meaningless dialogue where there wasn't any previously, which is annoying, but it's not all that excessive either. A couple of dub changes were for the worse, most noticeably this joke, which I think was funnier in the Japanese:
Sosuke: "Mom, Ponyo really loves to eat ham."
Mom, English: "So she thinks she's human, huh?"
Mom, Japanese: "Just like me."
Then again, the dub also adds this pretty funny joke:
Sosuke, English: I can't, I'm busy.
Kumiko, Japanese: What are you doing here?
Kumiko, English: "You're not busy. You're five."
BUT, it's a five-year-old saying this, which doesn't make sense. They should not tone down the five-year-oldness in this film. That's what makes the story work on any level. Tina Fey is good as the mother, though. She injects some bite into an otherwise archetypal character. All-in-all, stick to subs if you're past the age where you can read and watch a film at the same time.
The score is appropriate but not very memorable. It particularly succeeds at conveying a sort of childlike wistfulness.
Meanwhile, the Blu-ray is crisp and gorgeously detailed. With an HDMI connection on a high-definition TV, it's easy to make out the differences in artistic media that were used to create the land vs. the sea sequences in the film. (Land has visible brushstrokes indicating paint, while sea consists of thin lines and solid blocks of color). Each frame is so chock-full of detail and subtle motion that it's important to see it in the highest definition possible, at least once, in order to admire the artistry of what can be accomplished by focusing resources and a strong creative vision. One disappointing thing about this release, however, is that the Blu-ray uses the heavily revised English script for the subtitles instead of the Japanese. As a result, when watching in Japanese with subtitles, what you read will NOT always correspond to what you're hearing. I don't think that this is too much of a big deal for this film (it's not nearly as story intensive as other Ghiblies) but it's an unfortunate choice. It's also baffling that the DVD included with this release doesn't have the same issue.
Extras include a conversation between John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki, which contains some trivia but really dwells on the artistic bond between these two men. Another titled Creating Ponyo is more revealing. There, Miyazaki espouses his view of humanity and nature, and how society suppresses this bond. Other extras include producers and voice actors' perspectives. The World of Ghibli section consists of a number of brief Ghibli film-based activities. Generally, extras follow the film's tone by being largely geared towards children, inculcating them with wonder towards animation and Studio Ghibli in much the same way Ponyo itself does with the natural world.
In my opinion, the most interesting thing about these extras is that Miyazaki actually admits in one, “Ponyo is a movie for five-year-olds.” He's correct. In terms of narrative engagement, Ponyo is very much a movie for five-year-olds and pretty much nobody else. It's less accomplished than his most similar film, My Neighbor Totoro, in that that one works for older audiences to an extent. That isn't to say that Ponyo completely lacks value, however. Wonder is important for children, and plenty of artistic works have gained a reputation for artistry alone. I wouldn't pop this movie in unless I'm babysitting some kids (and even then only if we don't have any Adventure Time handy) but that doesn't mean that it's a stain on Ghibli's legacy.
Overall, Ponyo is a great work of artistry that doesn't quite succeed as a work of art. Its heart is just at its fringes. Miyazaki seems to have paid more attention to the deft contortions of line and color within the frame than the narrative's entanglements. Too saccharine and meandering for most adults, it's firm kids' shelf Ghibli, but that still means it's 20,000 leagues above most animated children's films.