(No longer in theaters)
Action/Adventure, Animation, Family
Toshio Suzuki, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steve Alpert
Walt Disney Pictures
Aug 14, 2009
Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated film, a very loose adaptation of The Little Mermaid called Ponyo, is more straightforward and kiddie-friendly than such multilayered masterpieces as Spirited Away, but in some ways its simplicity lets you see the director’s greatness more clearly. The title character, a fish who turns into a little girl to be with a boy named Sosuke, runs on top of the turbulent waves during a fierce typhoon, and those waves are suddenly huge dark fish that dissolve back into waves and then again into fish and again into waves as the girl is carried forward. I could invoke the Buddha or fix Miyazaki’s ethos with a neat label like “pantheism”—but his universe is too unpredictable, too fluid, too protean. Nothing in Miyazaki’s universe ever stops transforming: There are spirits tucked away, ready to turn what you think you see—the visible world—into something else. Miyazaki proves why two-dimensional hand-drawn animation will always be more thrilling than 3-D: It doesn’t need to pretend to be bound by the laws of physics. The borders between flesh and spirit are infinitely porous. Before I get too high-flown, let me say that Ponyo is unsullied by Disney’s English-language casting of Miley Cyrus’s little sister as Ponyo and a Jonas brother as Sosuke—although Noah Lindsey Cyrus is a tad shrill. But Liam Neeson has gravely splendid pipes as Ponyo’s father, a once-human wizard who lives underwater and despises humankind for polluting the planet. The early scenes recall Peter Max’s Yellow Submarine, with the father in a blue candy-striped jacket and flowing hair, a kind of undersea ringmaster. The father keeps his precious daughter in a bubble, afraid she’ll be carried to the surface—which she is anyway, on a jellyfish—and before he can rescue her, the wee fish begins her evolution. The natural world goes into an uproar as the moon descends and waters rise, and it falls to young Sosuke to prove his love for Ponyo is true. Even with its radiant colors and Joe Hisaishi’s score, a lush mixture of Snow White, Wagner, and Shostakovich, Ponyo could be insipid. Its magic comes from someplace deeper. We constantly see movies that contradict their own messages—celebrations of mavericks that are slavishly formulaic, testaments to selfless love suffused with snobbery and narcissism. But when Miyazaki makes films that decry the threat to the natural world, every molecule onscreen resonates with that belief—a belief that dissolves the boundaries between form and content.