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Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo on the Cliff:" A Huffington Post Review

09/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Much has been written about the Japanese "cult of the cute". Large dish-plate eyes and button noses in comics and cartoons are ubiquitous, and whether or not that's good or bad isn't here nor there. But the great animation director Hayao Miyazaki has used this cult to create one of the more disturbing monsters in cinematic history.

The monster is a fish-goddess named Brunhilde, who is being held prisoner by her father Fujimoto, who is the estranged husband of the goddess of the sea, and goes around in his submarine from where he pours his magic elixirs into the sea and creates more in order to so something horrible that it will destroy humanity and bring the world back into it's pre-civilized balance. He know about B-h's potential power, so he keeps her in the form of a "goldfish" in a "bowl" located within the submarine, something she and her many sister/servants aren't to happy about.

So when Dad isn't looking, B-h sneaks out of the sub and hijacks the nearest jellyfish, where she starts lolling around the seven seas before coming close to shore, where she gets stuck in a bottle, and gets rescued by a five-year-old boy named Sosuke, who lives with his parents somewhere on the Japanese coast.

Now presumably, Miyazaki has made a study of the behavior of five-year old children, but that doesn't seem evident. A real Sosuke wouldn't act in the way he does. The little tyke puts B-h in a bucket and fills it with FRESH water. Now, a little kid on vacation at the beach might to that if they had never been to the sea before, but our Sosuke lives there. Mommy and Daddy would have told him that doing so would kill the creature. But this doesn't matter, because what he has isn't any ordinary fish, but as little goddess, who has tasted his blood and fallen deeply in lust.

Now here's where we get into the Japanese Cult of the Cute, B-h, whom Sosuke names Ponyo, accidently escapes, gets caught by Daddy, escapes again, and in doing so cracks the entire space-time continuum and thus causes hundreds of trillions of Yen's worth of damage to the coast of Japan, We see the supernatural waves crashing on the shore, turning into fish and trying deliberately to drown Sosuke and his mother's car. Our hero sees B-h/Ponyo in the form of a little girl, running on top of the water with a happy-go-lucky grin trying to say hello. Isn't that SWEET? When I saw this for the first time at Comic-Con in San Diego last month, the reaction was mostly "isn't that special? Isn't that Charming?" Miyazaki's design is perfect, and that's what's so scary here. If Ponyo wasn't cute, we would all be screaming " bang her on the head with that shovel!!!!" at the screen.

Of course the whole thing ends happily ever after. It has to. What we have is total deus ex machina in what has to be the most random of Miyazaki's films to date.

The character of Ponyo is closest to the main character in the famous Twilight Zone episode, It's a Good Life, in which a child, played by Billy Mumy, terrorizes a small town because of his god-like powers. The recently released horror film Orphan, likewise has a little girl as the villain (spoiler: she's a 35-year old midget), but in that case we know that she's evil. Miyazaki, on the other hand, wants us to love little Ponyo, because she's happy and adorable. It's the anime style that overcomes the astoundingly insipid plot. The question is that why didn't Miyazaki, who has in the past been a master of plotting, fall so flat here. His previous fantasies all have well though out stories and deep characters. This time, it's idiot plotting cardboard figurines. Its sad to see a great man jump the shark like that.