Ponyo is a magical goldfish that lives at the very bottom of the ocean with all her sisters and her father, Fujimoto. Use to be one himself, Fujimoto hates humans because of how much they pollute the ocean, and kill the life of the fish and sea mammals that live in it for food. Because of this, he plans to eventually reset the world’s balance back to the Devonian era by using an Elixir well, and keeps his children secure so they never meet any life that lives on land. That doesn’t stop Ponyo, as one day she sneaks out and becomes trapped in a jar and washes on the shore on a seaside town and is rescued by a young boy called Sōsuke, who takes care of her and gives her the name Ponyo. Her father finds out where she is, believed to have been kidnapped by the humans, and uses the spirits to retrieve her, but she wants to go back to Sōsuke and be a human herself. So when Fujimoto leave her, her sisters help her escape, accidentally overflows the Elixir well, causing her to both gain the appearance of a human and use the magical powers of the ocean, but also cause mass floods and hurricanes, flooding almost the entire planet and causing the Earth’s gravitational pull to go out of balance. The Goddess of the Ocean, and Ponyo’s mother, is able to restore the Earth back to normal if the relationship between Ponyo and Sōsuke is strong enough for Ponyo to live as a human being, so it is up to them both to pass this test and restore the Earth to what it was.
In 2005, Hayao Miyazaki spent a holiday at the seaside town of Tomonoaura, the imagery of the town and what was in the town gave Miyazaki the inspiration for the story and setting for the film, he also took inspiration from The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian-Andersen, and is also be inspired by Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Production for the film began on October 2006, and in a bold move for Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki decided that the majority of the film will be hand drawn, feeling that it is the best way to express the motion of the sea and waves, the only use of computers were for colouring. Over 170,000 frames were drawn, which for the amount of frames – time ratio, is a record for a feature length Miyazaki film. It was finally released on July 19th 2008 in Japan, and later won the award of Animation of the Year in the Japanese Academy Awards. It was later released on August 9th 2009 in America where it opened in 927 theatres, reaching 9th on the US Box Office Charts and 5th in the US Overall Box Office Charts for Anime. The film finally reached the UK on February 12th 2010, and it was the first time I saw this film in theatres before buying the DVD.
Like other Hayao Miyazaki films, the animation is wonderful. Characters move smoothly and realistically, the amount of little detail like the way the character’s clothes move against both calm and heavy winds feel very real. Some of the scenes such as Ponyo running on the top of the ocean look really impressive, it’s kind of hard to believe these scenes were completely hand drawn. The art style is very colourful, and really gives the feel of both the mystical blue ocean and the vibrant summer feel of the seaside town.
While the character designs of the human characters are standard for a Studio Ghibli, very human like, the non-human characters are the more interesting in design, on first impressions Fujimoto looked very bizarre and when I first saw him I had no clue what gender he was, since he look like he was a drag queen or something, the goddess of the ocean, known as Granmamare, looks very beautiful, with the glowing nature giving her the enchanted feel of a peaceful entity. Ponyo has three designs, her fish design is slightly confusing, since she’s meant to be a fish, but she has a human face and it takes a while before a human character notices her face, but it is simple and the face does show her as being more than a simple fish and allows her to be expressive. Her human design is kind of normal, but not too normal to make her look too different from her fish counterpart, I did find it funny that she looks like she wears a huge diaper however. She also has this weird design which is meant to be her in-between phase, the best explanation to describe it was it was Kermit the Frog wearing a dress and twigs for limbs and it just looks weird. One fact about the character design is that Sōsuke is based on Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki, while it’s interesting seeing as how both have had a difficult relationship since Goro was the Director of Tales from Earthsea, but in reality I don’t care.
The music is very catchy and memorable, another good score from Joe Hisaishi. The music really fits the mood of the settings and the main theme “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” is so catchy it’s easy to hum it. Then there is the English…why do I have to talk about this? Well, for people who don’t know, in the English version, not only did Disney record a translated version, but they also made a remix, done in the style common with Disney’s modern “hip” style, both with vocals done by the main two cast members, Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, and both versions were shown in the film’s ending credits. I have heard both the English and the Original Japanese versions and yes, I hate the named “Disneyfied” Ponyo remix, but upon release everyone kept ranting about it and some went to say it ruined the film overall. For the only time I’m gonna be on Disney’s defence, let me say that these ranters are really going too far with this criticism. There are perfectly good reasons why this was done and while it should be allowed in:
- Disney marketed this film for kids in general, not anime goers. I do believe that anime goers would want to see this film, but I highly doubt there were many people that stayed until the very end of the credits, when the remix was playing. Whenever I see a film, everyone leaves at the start of the credits.
- There was a literal translation of the theme at the start of the credits, and it is nicely done, yet no one gives any opinion or mentions the existence of it.
- I watched from beginning to end the full Japanese version, and at the second half of the credit sequence was two minutes of silence, if that was in the English version I would be surprised if the audience were bored out of their mind watching the credits.
The voice acting in the Japanese version is very nice, but it doesn’t really have a lasting impression for me. Yuria Nara and Hiroki Doi are great child actors, and really add to the young innocence of both Ponyo and Sōsuke. George Tokoro has a serious tone, showing him as a strict father figure. I honestly had no hope whatsoever for the English Cast, having Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as Sōsuke, the younger siblings of the two things that I hate about Disney for the past three years was not something I wanted to see, and even though it had Oskar Schindler as Fujimoto as well both Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, I wasn’t expecting anything good. When I saw the film, it honestly wasn’t bad. Frankie Jonas doesn’t put as much effort but he does make Sōsuke a likable, smart and caring child, Noah Cyrus is very energetic and happy, although she can be a little whiney in her tone. Liam Neeson as Fujimoto is just hilarious, he does use his normal speaking voice and does give a serious tone that has the similar effect Tokoro did, but during the more comical scenes, he makes them really funny. Yuki Amami and Cate Blanchett are both equally good at portraying Granmamare, sounding calm and soft, very royally as well.
After re-watching all of my Studio Ghibli films these past few months, I’ve noticed something about Miyazaki’s films. When he makes a film for a general audience, like Nausicaa, Mononoke and even Spirited Away, they are overall very good films, with a brilliant array of characters, straightforward yet diverse storylines, with great visuals and music, and they feel just as realistic as live-action films. However, when he makes a film specifically for children in mind like My Neighbour Totoro, they are good films, but they lack in their story and realism. In this case, Ponyo is definitely a good film, it has a good sense of humour and it has a great storyline, but like the first half hour of Totoro, there are moments which are practically just padding for the best scenes. There are also some moments which don’t really make that much sense, like when the Tsunami begins and the sailors don’t notice the humongous fishes that resemble the waves, although one notices Ponyo running on them, I guess you really need to put a lot of imagination and initiative in this film, and since it’s a kid film you should expect to buy a lot. The story does have a great influence on The Little Mermaid, but unlike the Disney film, this one focuses more on both the main characters and the idea of nature and the relationship between Ponyo and Sōsuke.
Overall, Ponyo is a sweat and lovely film, both brilliant in its music and imagery. While it’s not perfect as a film overall, it’s certainly a film kids will love, and even if you are not a kid, it’s definitely worth a watch.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. A 4 volume film comic is available from Viz Media but as I’ve always said about film comics, they are not worth your time and money.