The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is one of the last holdouts for old-style, hand-drawn animation. Although he has occasionally, for short stretches, resorted to computer graphics as well, his movies remain triumphantly painterly and fluid. They're pre-Pixar paragons.
"Ponyo," his latest, is not quite as magical or complexly unsettling as, say, "Howl's Moving Castle" or his Oscar-winning masterpiece, "Spirited Away." But it's still a marvel. Although it will draw thematic comparisons to "The Little Mermaid" and "Finding Nemo," it's unlike any other animated feature – excepting, of course, Miyazaki's own.
Ponyo is the name of a tiny fish in a red dress – a goldfish princess – who jumps out of the ocean to see the world. (Floating jellyfish are her couriers.) She wants to be human and, in a way, that's what happens. Rescued by the 5-year-old boy Sosuke, who lives on a cliff high above the roaring waters, the two become inseparable until forces both natural and unnatural contrive to break them apart.
Ponyo's father is a kind of water deity, a sorcerer, who at first seems benighted but, in fact, is Ponyo's protector. Miyazaki has compared him to Prospero in "The Tempest," and this is apt. There are sequences in "Ponyo," such as the scene where the oceans crash as submerged trees and moorless ships assume otherworldly shapes, that have a Shakespearean poeticism.
Although the films of Charlie Chaplin are an admitted influence on Miyazaki, especially in the delicate slapstick sequences between Ponyo and Sosuke, the emotional range here is much wilder. Ponyo at times is so rebellious as to be diabolic, and the forces she unleashes threaten to overwhelm everything she loves. This roiling emotional complexity is a defining characteristic of Miyazaki's movies and may account for the fact that, in America at least, they have not been commercial hits. American audiences tend to want their animation easily consumable. (Even the best Pixar movies are emotionally straightforward.) "Ponyo" is the most accessible of Miyazaki's movies, and Disney, who is releasing it in the US, is giving it a large promotion, substituting for the original Japanese voices such dubbing talent as Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, and Lily Tomlin. (Nothing else about the film has been altered from the Japanese version.) Perhaps all this will rightfully make Miyazaki a household name in all the right households.
"Ponyo" is one of the rare new family-entertainment movies that works equally well for adults and for children: The film's mixture of childlike fancifulness and grown-up complication will ensure this. And by experiencing Miyazaki's confluence of innocence and high emotion, children may find themselves watching this movie and growing up a little – just like Ponyo popping out of the sea into the great wide world. Grade: A