There’s no way to watch the latest film from Hiyao Miyazaki, Ponyo, and not think of Hurricane Katrina. In the film a massive, mystical storm hits a small Japanese port town and completely submerges it; the next morning the townspeople paddle boats through a surreal waterworld where the tops of trees and steeples and power lines poke up from the deep water. But unlike the tragedy and horror that beset the waterlogged survivors of Katrina, the people of Ponyo‘s submerged town take it all in stride. The surreal visions of a surface world turned aquatic are not used in the service of terror but rather wonder and magic.
So yeah, it’s a pretty weird movie.
Ponyo is definitely a step down the age ladder for Miyazaki. This is certainly his youngest-skewing feature in decades – possibly since My Neighbor Totoro. Ponyo is aimed squarely at a six year old crowd, but open minded adults will find a lot to like. Especially if they’re interested in movies that are flat out weird.
As kids shows like Teletubbies and Hey Gabba Gabba tell us, little kids like to roll with stuff that is illogical, strange, bizarre and just plain screwy. In other words, they’re kind of like little stoners. And Ponyo plays to that – lax cause and effect, a lackadaisical story that sort of flutters along and largely undefined, boundary-free magic that gives the entire film the feeling of a strange, warm dream.
Ponyo is a fish-chicken-girl-goddess (voiced by Miley Cyrus’ curiously named sister, Noah Lindsey Cyrus) who briefly escapes from her father’s undersea world. Her father is a study in contrasts – he has the voice of Liam Neeson but looks like the ponciest character in recent memory. He was a human but gave all of that up to get it on with a sea goddess (leaving him the single father of about a thousand little tadpole-like babies), and while he hates the humans who pollute the ocean he’s actually a pretty okay guy. He’s just sort of overprotective and maybe has some anger issues. But when Ponyo makes her way to the surface she briefly meets a boy and falls in love with him; brought back undersea by her dad she escapes again using her innate magic… and then also unleashes the magic from a well of environmental weirdness.
Like I said, a lot of this stuff is vague. The important thing is that when she returns to the surface she also unleashes a huge wave of magic that starts pulling the Moon closer to the Earth, which starts upsetting the tides. This leads to the flooding of the town and culminates in Ponyo’s mom and dad deciding to test her to see if she and this little surface world boy are really in love.
Which is probably the weirdest thing in the whole film. Ponyo‘s second half is all about these two kids getting to know each other (Ponyo’s likes include ham and long runs on the ocean waves) and then deciding if they’re soul mates. At age six. Can you imagine if you got stuck with the first girl you crushed on in the sandbox? This makes arranged marriage seem reasonable; what kind of fool asks a six year old to set their own life path?
Of course nobody in the movie really notices how weird that is; weirdness is only noted in the positive, such as how the magic unleashed on the world has made a group of nursing home ladies spry again. Everybody in town seems to be touched, and while there was probably a worldwide cataclysm, all’s well that ends well. Since the film is for the younger kids there are no scares in the storm and the flooding – Sosuke, voiced by little Frankie Jonas, takes the whole thing in stride and is even unfazed when his mother (Tina Fey; I have to admit that hearing Liz Lemon’s voice in this maternal role was very difficult for me) is stranded on the other side of town by the rising waters. It’s all just a trippy fairy tale time, and an excuse for a sleep-over party. When monstrous sea creatures from previous eras in Earth’s history return to swim through the sea-soaked streets of the town they don’t scare Sosuke but give he and Ponyo a chance to show off their impressive knowledge of the fauna of the Devonian Period.
Ponyo exhibits Miyazaki’s usual glorious animation; stylized scenes of roaring waves (made out of Ponyo’s siblings, who can… turn themselves into waves or something) remind us why hand drawn animation should never go away. There’s a purity to the way human beings create these images, and a roughness, that will never be replicated in even the best CGI cartoon. This stuff has soul.
But it’s hard for me to recommend this to anyone out of the third grade or without kids to take along. While Howl’s Moving Castle and especially Spirited Away spoke to me in ways that were moving and immediate, Ponyo never quite touched me. It’s admirable and enjoyable and beautiful but it’s a movie for the littlest of the little ones.