By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Ponyo,” the new film from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, opens with a shot of the sky on a sunny day. It’s only a short shot. Unlike Miyazaki’s earlier film “Porco Rosso,” “Ponyo” concerns itself with the sea, not the sky.
In that short shot of the sky, the clouds stretch into animal-like shapes. Miyazaki believes that an underlying life force is contained in every living thing on Earth. His concern for living things underscores the love story at the center of “Ponyo.”
The shot swiftly switches from the sky to under the sea. The first few minutes unfold with no dialogue, only music and the amazing colors of Miyazaki’s animated ocean.
An undersea wizard, Fujimoto (voiced in English by Liam Neeson) communes with whales and other sea life. His daughter, a headstrong red goldfish named Brünnhilde (Noah Cyrus), tries to escape her father’s vessel.
She rides to the surface on a jellyfish. Sōsuke (Frankie Jonas), a small boy living on a cliff above the sea, scoops her up at seaside.
Sōsuke loves his new companion and carries her to school in a bucket. From the start, she seems smarter and sassier than your average goldfish. Sōsuke gives her the name Ponyo.
However, Fujimoto won’t rest until he gets his daughter back. He transforms ocean waves into living beings with shifty eyes. They comb the beach and the shore looking for Brünnhilde.
The waves with the eyes is one of many fascinating visual patterns in the movie. Miyazaki uses muted colors and soft lines in this film and avoids the vivid palette and sharp edges utilized in his brilliant but frightening film, “Spirited Away.”
Miyazaki also took an active role in drawing his latest film.
He experimented with wave patterns on paper, using many complex forms in the final cut. The intricacy of this hand-drawn approach yields fantastic results in both color and texture.
Color also helps Miyazaki strike a balance between the sea and the land. At Sōsuke’s school, we see umbrellas of many colors, stacked in a rack.
Later, Fujimoto broods in his deep-sea lair, among some long and thin magic flasks in those same distinctive colors.
Balance counts for a lot in Miyazaki’s films. As Ponyo stays with Sōsuke, she upsets the balance of nature without intending to. At one point, most of the town ends up under the sea. This allows Miyazaki to portray some splendid visions of exotic marine life swimming among apartment houses.
The English-language voice actors also include Tina Fey as Sōsuke’s mother Lisa and Matt Damon as Sōsuke’s father Kōichi. They bring warmth and variety to their roles as a sometimes-harried couple. Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White join in as a trio of old ladies cared for by Lisa.
Miyazaki’s visuals carry the film. In one scene, Ponyo and Sōsuke exchange glances after being separated. Their expressions tell you everything you need to know about how they feel about each other.
The Walt Disney Company announced a wide distribution for “Ponyo” with an intense publicity campaign. This will be the most intensive and expensive treatment given to a Miyazaki film in America. I hope everyone I know will go see this film.
However, I’m hoping it won’t be successful purely because of the Disney name or the Disney money. For anyone with a love of intricate, intense stories with comedy and love thrown in, “Ponyo” should sell itself. ♦
Ponyo is currently in theaters. Check your local listings for show times and ticket information.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.