The work of animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is an acquired taste, one to which cultural differences can prove to be a barrier.
I'll admit that I wasn't a particular fan of Miyazaki's Oscar-winning Spirited Away or his other films. Perhaps it's my misspent Looney Tunes/Walt Disney-focused youth. For whatever reason, his work has been a little short on story and long on symbols for my taste.
But I confess: I was charmed and captivated by his newest film, Ponyo. A kind of reimagining of The Little Mermaid, Ponyo (pronounced PON-yo) has a childlike wonder wedded to dazzlingly imaginative visuals, in a story of surprising simplicity and equally surprising emotional depth.
The film's two central characters are both 5-year-old children: a boy, Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas -- yes, little brother to those Jonas brothers), and a girl, Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). Sosuke lives with his mother (Tina Fey) in a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean; Sosuke's father (Matt Damon) pilots cargo ships that Sosuke can see in the distance from shore. Sosuke's days are spent at a preschool, next door to the senior citizens' home where his mother works.
Ponyo starts the story as a goldfish with a human face; she looks a little like Crockett Johnson's Harold, of purple crayon fame. Ponyo and her school of identical guppy-sized siblings live in an undersea castle with her father (Liam Neeson), who has magic powers over the fish and ocean (though he breathes air within his own self-contained bubble) and wears what looks like vintage threads from Carnaby Street circa 1980.
Ponyo meets Sosuke while still in fish form, when he rescues her after she becomes stuck half-in, half-out of a glass jar. Sosuke puts her in a bucket of water and takes her to school, naming her Ponyo and proclaiming her his new best friend. So when she is recaptured by her father, Sosuke is devastated.
But Ponyo has fallen hard for Sosuke. So she uses her father's magic to transform herself into a human girl and return to shore to find him. In doing so -- becoming human while practicing magic -- Ponyo throws the world out of balance, causing the moon to come too close to the Earth, wreaking havoc with the tides and requiring her father and mother (the queen of the oceans) to bring things back to right.
Really, it's as broad and simple as that. But the imagery and colors are so vivid, so imaginative, so inventively enthralling that the plot tends to fall by the wayside. Miyazaki pulls you into a world of pure imagination that seems, by turns, inspired by images from Maurice Sendak, Winsor McCay and the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.
The plot hinges on true love -- but a love between 5-year-olds. Yet Miyazaki makes these emotions meaningful, even compelling, thanks to the sense of wonder with which he imbues his imagery.
The English-language voice cast features a stellar lineup (including also Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cate Blanchett). The two most talkative characters are Ponyo and Sosuke -- but then, this isn't a dialogue-driven tale.
Rather, like most of Miyazaki's films, there's a dreamlike quality to the storytelling that takes it into a fairy-tale realm, even within the modern world. In this case, the magical qualities serve the story, making Ponyo a tale that will transport, physically and mentally.
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