Miyazaki Retrospective: “Ponyo”

Once upon a time there was this movie.

This movie is, still today, considered by most a classic, and by some one of the greatest animated films ever made. It wasn’t the story, which was simple but surprisingly powerful. It wasn’t even the characters, though one of those characters became a sensation in her own right.

No, what made that movie legendary was its stunning view of undersea life, its gorgeously varied lights, textures, and creatures used to create a detailed and beautiful world simply never seen before, and arguably never seen since.

The movie I’m referring to, of course, is “Finding Nemo”, made by the only studio in the world able to consistently rival “Studio Ghibli” at its peak (one day the Pixar retrospective is coming!). “Finding Nemo” was a landmark film in the world of animation, proving that CGI could provide phenomenally beautiful backgrounds and creatures that even traditional animation couldn’t. It was statement movie, proof that CGI was not only cheaper than traditional animation but in the right hands just as beautiful as well.

Okay. Now let’s fast forward six years. Arguably the greatest animator in the world has finally, years after he announced his retirement (again!), come out with his new movie.

His last movie? A supremely imaginative fairy tale known as “Howl’s Moving Castle”, a movie more in line with his films like “Castle in the Sky” and even “Princess Mononoke” than his earlier children’s oriented entertainment.

So the question on everyone’s mind is: What is he going to do next?

Let nobody claim Miyazaki isn’t full of surprises. He stumped the world and turned back the clock to his earlier works for young children and came out with “Ponyo”, the wonderfully weird Miyazaki perspective on “The Little Mermaid”.

The trouble with Miyazaki films – for me, anyway – is that even when I find myself saying “This film is better” or “This film is worse”, I still don’t really have any specific flaws to pick on. Put another way – his execution is generally flawless, or close to it. The differences lie less in how well each particular film happens to be made and more in the ambition of his ideas and certain creative choices. Past that you get down – as my sister did in the “Mononoke” review – to nitpicking.

This very long prelude is all set up for me to say that “Ponyo” is an engaging and creative film. The darkness in “Ponyo” splits the balance between “Totoro” and “Kiki’s”. Unlike in “Kiki’s”, there is definitely an underlying sense of danger to the whole proceedings, but it’s never as real or tragic as Satsuki and Mei’s mother’s sickness in “Totoro”. Sosuke’s father is lost at sea, yes, but we cut to him multiple times, and neither Sosuke nor his mother seem overly worried about him. Later on it gets a little more serious when Sosuke can’t find his mother, and there’s definitely the nagging feeling that the senior center where his mother works is in danger, but in the end Miyazaki deliberately chooses not to focus on the more frightening parts in favor of Ponyo’s childlike whimsy and the pure beauty of his animation.

Oh, and what animation it is! Amazingly, this might be the most gorgeous Miyazaki film I’ve seen so far. The “Finding Nemo” was mentioned because of how interesting the contrast is between Miyazaki’s animation and Stanton and Unkrich’s. The animation in Nemo isn’t quite photorealistic – the fish ultimately look very human in their own way – but it definitely leaned very far in that direction. As a result it felt less like looking at the creation of a new world and more like we were taking a peek into our own backyard, and all of the beauty it contained.

As Nemo used CGI to do something traditional animation simply couldn’t, “Ponyo” used traditional animation in ways I’ve frankly never seen before or since. For Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is a painting, but not a static one. The artistic style isn’t very close to realistic but – interestingly – the people are, giving the impression that regular humans are interacting with an artist’s canvas.

The animation of the water is quite simply some of the best ever. It has to be. There is a scene where Sosuke and his mother outrace a tsunami to their house. Unbeknownst to the mother, the tsunami is not only following them – lead by Ponyo, who is skipping across the top – it is transforming into fantastical underwater creatures, sometimes looking like fish or whales or rays and other times simply forming into a gigantic many-eyed monster. It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful sequence, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a sequence CGI just can’t replicate. It’s literally impossible.

The story is actually one of Miyazaki’s more straightforward, weird as it is, and the message of the film feels more typically Disney – the power of love will save the world – than Miyazaki, who tends to have layers of meaning in his films. Sosuke is a fine protagonist and Ponyo is lovable enough, but ultimately I found neither as well drawn or interesting as some of his other heroes, like Pazu and Sheeta, or even Satsuki and Mei. Liam Neeson’s wizard character was fascinating, but I’d have liked to figure out a little more about his and Ponyo’s relationship. We know Ponyo doesn’t really like him but while we get some hints, it’s not fully clear why.

So for those reasons this is probably – again, for certain values of the phrase – my “least favorite” Miyazaki film so far. On the other hand, I’m not willing to go further than probably. The gorgeous animation is so stunning that it alone might pull it up in the ranks. Either way, like all of his work, it’s highly recommended.