In a world where animation has come to mean glossy, 3-D Pixar films, it is refreshing to see a movie that represents the painstakingly hand-drawn vision of a true artist. The modern master of animation, Hayao Miyazaki, presents Ponyo, a contemporary fairy tale that is a blend of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Wagner’s The Valkyrie with his own brand of environmentalism, feminism and some spectacular wizardry thrown in for good measure.
The story features a young fish-girl (Noah Cyrus), daughter of a powerful undersea wizard (Liam Neeson), who ventures to the surface and ends up in the care of Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a young boy who lives with his mother (Tina Fey) in an isolated house on top of a cliff. Sosuke names the fish-girl Ponyo, and cares for her until he loses her to the sea at the hands of her father. Her father (who insists on calling Ponyo Brünhildde, à la Wagner) is unable to keep her underwater for long, and she uses her powerful magic to rise to the surface to be with Sosuke, whom she has fallen in love with. Sensing the inevitable, her father and mother (Cate Blanchett) realize that she is determined to live her life on dry land, so they arrange a test to determine whether the young Sosuke is worthy of being her companion. Sosuke passes the test and Ponyo becomes human, restoring the balance of nature in the process.
From the hand-drawn landscapes to the masterfully crafted action sequences, Ponyo is a visual delight. Miyazaki did a significant amount of the animation himself on this project, and his vision shows through. The scenes in which the raging water is personified as giant blue fish, crashing as waves on the land, is not mere storytelling or even art as much as it is a perfect anthropomorphizing of nature with a tender strength that only Miyazaki could pull off.
The cast of characters includes Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman as a group of seniors who provide comic relief to the story. Their witty banter belies their key role in the closing scenes of the movie, in which they undergo transformations that lead them to physical restoration, as the young Ponyo and Sosuke demonstrate their emotional maturity.
While I am predisposed to reject the contrived confusion of dubbed voice talent, the casting was spot on — with one exception. Cyrus and Jonas were well-suited to the two young lead roles. Tina Fey’s slightly tinny-yet-loving tone was just right for Sosuke’s mother, and Cate Blanchett’s performance as Ponyo’s mystical mother, while bordering on a re-enactment of her portrayal of Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings, fit perfectly. Liam Neeson’s booming baritone missed the mark, though. He was not believable as the thin, gangly, smarmy sea wizard.
The one major disappointment in the film is the climactic scene in which Sosuke is asked to perform a test of love, to prove he is worthy of Ponyo. The film builds to a crescendo leading to the moment in which Ponyo’s parents, in a mystical, life-regenerating bubble under the flooded surface of the earth, tell him what his test of love is. His test of love, the pinnacle that the film has been building to, is simply a question. After over an hour of drama, leitmotif, action and frantic emotion, they just ask him to promise that he will love Ponyo no matter what form she is in. But it isn’t a question that is beautiful in its simplicity, instead, it comes across as an awkwardly worded letdown.
In spite of the mis-step with the climactic scene, and a couple of odd scenes that didn’t translate very well to the American screen (including an unsettling discussion about the origins of human breast milk), Ponyo is a brilliant work of art by a man who may be the last great master of hand-drawn animation. It is a must see.