The work of Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki’s stands along the best of family oriented animation, with a distinctive style and deft combination of themes such as man’s relationship with nature with whimsical character design. Ponyo is their latest film, which takes the basic idea of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, but keeps only the bare idea of a mermaid who strives, against her father’s wishes, to become a human and leave the sea after she sees a boy and falls in love with him.
Miyazaki’s version takes place in modern Japan. Sosuke lives with his mom, Lisa, in a house up o a hill overlooking the ocean. His father, Koichi, is a sailor and often away at sea. When playing by the ocean one day he finds a strange goldfish who he keeps and dubs Ponyo. Ponyo is actually the daughter of an alchemist who lives under the sea and seeks to restore balance to nature and her mother is a goddess (the dubbed version calls her “the goddess of forgiveness). Ponyo licks a drop of blood from Sozuke’s cut hand, and eats ham, which begins her transformation into a human. When her father gets her back, she escapes from the globe he keeps all of his many goldfish daughters in, and gets into his elixirs, allowing her to become a girl and join Sosuke at his home. It also results in a tumultuous explosion of energy in the ocean, causing huge storms and flooding and the return of many prehistoric species of fish. Ponyo’s father and mother agree to test Sosuke and if he passes, Ponyo can remain a girl.
While Ponyo was enjoyable in the dubbed version that Disney released to DVD, the story seemed a bit thin and some of the plot felt glossed/rushed over in favor of the admittedly beautiful animation, character design, and small moments between characters. This is not entirely unsuccessful, since the characters are adorable and the animation is beautiful to watch, but the exact nature of events became fuzzy by the end. The American cast is mixed, with some (Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson) coming off better than others. It’s not that Matt Damon and Tina Fey are bad, but they just seem off somehow in their roles. Still, these are minor quibbles, as the film is simply charming.