Miyazaki’s Sweet, Surreal Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, an oceanic warning of a destabilized future.

In the summer of Up’s CGI codgers and G-Force’s lethally armed guinea pigs, the brilliantly hand-drawn spectacle of Hayao Miyazaki’s latest effort, Ponyo, sticks out like a sore traditionalist.

A simple tale about a goldfish girl who falls for a human boy, the movie’s vibrant analog visuals surpass the digital imagery of the aforementioned films and most others aimed at the children’s demographic, revealing just how far CGI can take animation down the rabbit hole if it leaves its artistic heart at home.

Like almost all his films, Miyazaki’s G-rated take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which opens Friday, is a fitting distillation of the filmmaker’s ecological awareness. Ponyo’s aqua-magical main family — mermaid Ponyo (voiced by Miley Cyrus’ sister, Noah Lindsey Cyrus), alchemist father Fujimoto (inhabited with gravitas by Liam Neeson) and sea-goddess mother Gran Mamare (the hypnotic Cate Blanchett) — dysfunctionally toes the acclaimed director’s often-disastrous tightrope between humans and the environment, in search of a happy ending.

They eventually get there, but only after Ponyo escapes Fujimoto’s Coral Tower, falls in love with a boy named Sosuke (voiced by, no lie, the “bonus Jonas” brother Frankie) and, in the end, stops an oceanic uprising against humanity with a kiss.

Ponyo’s innocent transgression knocks the natural order of things out of balance in the sleepy seaside village she once lived beneath. But unlike the War on Terra of Miyazaki’s previous films Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the Academy Award-winning director has lightened his audience’s load by keeping the environmental activism of Ponyo to a minimum. Instead, he keeps the proceedings lighthearted and uses his paintbrushes to revel in the planet’s pulsating possibility.

That hand-drawn ambition reaches its exhilarating apogee after Ponyo is separated from Sosuke and forcibly returned to her father. The imposition sets off a crisis of agency for Ponyo, who first refuses the name Fujimoto gives her — “Brunhilde,” Miyazaki’s clever nod to Wagner’s Ring — and then escapes again to search for Sosuke while riding a tsunami that threatens to swamp the entire town.

That breathtaking sequence, the film’s greatest achievement, was composed entirely by Miyazaki without a shred of CGI, and it’s riveting to watch. With uncompromising velocity, its unrestrained exhibition of Ponyo’s love for Sosuke beautifully merges with the primal terror of drowning, rivaling any sequence from Miyazaki’s previous films.

Sosuke is bravely spirited away (pardon the pun) from Miyazaki’s tsunami to his home high above ground by the boy’s mother, Lisa (Tina Fey). But once he and Ponyo finally reunite, all earthly heck breaks loose.

The moon slips loose of its orbit, satellites fall from the sky and a massive flood engulfs the town. It is left to Ponyo and Sosuke to set off in a giant toy boat to restore ecological balance, but not before Miyazaki takes the opportunity to show off an oceanic spectacle of Devonian-era marine life.

By the time they are reunited with Ponyo and Sosuke’s family members, the odd couple’s cross-species love is asked to save a natural world out of its mind. And its heart, which Miyazaki is careful to subtly dissect.

After all, the major relationships of Ponyo are fractured, so who’s to judge a goldfish’s innocent but nevertheless strong love for a human boy? The film takes pains to mention that Sosuke’s seafaring parents, Lisa and Koichi (Matt Damon), spend more frustrating time apart than they do together. Similarly, Fujimoto and Gran Mamare are estranged, making the case that Ponyo and Sosuke will at least live up to the love of their forebears.

And so, in true Miyazake fashion, a resolution is found, and what little there is of Ponyo‘s interpersonal tension quickly evaporates. This lack of drama would normally make for less than ideal Miyazake viewing: From his first hilarious film The Castle of Cagliostro to the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, his work has been emotionally weighty as well as visually intoxicating.

But like the phenomenally sweet Kiki’s Delivery Service, a must-see for anyone with a daughter, Ponyo is a refreshing ride through the seaside, short on bumps and long on heart.

This article appeared at Wired

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