voice casts: Yuria Nari, Hiroki Doi, Joji Tokoro; Liam Neeson, Matt Damon

director: Hayao Miyazaki

97 minutes (U) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Sarah Ash


Five-year-old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi/ Frankie Jonas) lives in a house on a cliff overlooking the sea. One day he finds an unusual goldfish (Yuria Nari/ Noah Cyrus) in a glass jar washed up on the shore below his house and decides to take care of it. But this is no ordinary goldfish, it is Brunhilda, rebellious little daughter of Fujimoto (Joji Tokoro/ Liam Neeson) the wizard who regulates the world of the oceans, and the beneficent sea goddess Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett).

The little goldfish takes an immediate liking to her human rescuer and determines to become a human in order to spend time with him. And, as the feeling is mutual, Sosuke gives his new friend the name ‘Ponyo.’ But this special friendship disrupts the balance of nature, drawing the Moon too close to the Earth, not only endangering Sosuke’s sea captain father Koichi (Kazushige Nagashima/ Matt Damon) and all the other ships out at sea, but also flooding the land. What can Sosuke and Ponyo do to persuade her all-powerful parents to avert a terrible disaster – and even if they do, will it mean the end of their friendship?

Hayao Miyazaki appeals to the inner five-year-old in everyone in Ponyo, a charming, colourful, and beautifully animated story that draws on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for its inspiration. Sosuke’s everyday world is lovingly brought to life, from the busy fishing port to the home for seniors where Lisa, his mother, works, next door to his nursery school. The humour is gentle but sure to appeal to a young audience; one of Ponyo’s little tricks in goldfish form is to spout a jet of water at anyone taking a good look at her.

Ponyo has a wild, natural energy and hunger for life (and ham!) that make her an appealing heroine. There is a passing reference to the danger that she has placed herself in by aspiring to become human. Just like the little mermaid, she will turn to sea foam if the one she cares about can’t affirm his love for her. But this is so underplayed (probably so as not to alarm the young viewers) that there is never any real sense of dramatic tension. It’s the touches of everyday life that give the film its charm, from Sosuke’s interactions with the three elderly ladies at the home (Cloris Leachman, Betty White, and Lily Tomlin) to the amusing and realistic interplay between Sosuke and his spirited working mum, Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi/ Tina Fey.)

On the animation side, the magical opening sequence which takes the viewer on a journey beneath the waves, through rising shoals of jellyfish, to show us Fujimoto performing his underwater alchemy, does not disappoint. The traditional values of hand-crafted animation, for which Studio Ghibli is so rightly celebrated, are convincingly represented here.

This two-disc release has both the US dub and the original Japanese version with English subtitles. In the extras we learn that Miyazaki and his team not only approved of the English script, we get to see them watching the finished dub and smiling and nodding appreciatively. Purists (like me) will probably opt for the original Japanese version but I have to admit that the US dub isn’t too shabby, with some persuasive character work from Cloris Leachman, Betty White, and Lily Tomlin as the ‘seniors.’

A word or two about the score which as in all Miyazaki’s films plays a vital part in enhancing and enriching the animation. Joe Hisaishi has worked with Miyazaki on almost all his productions and Studio Ghibli doesn’t stint on the budget; this is a fully orchestrated symphonic score, conducted by the composer, filled with echoes of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and Wagner. Later, Hisaishi plays a gentle musical joke on the audience; as Ponyo makes a bid for freedom, he makes play with Ponyo’s theme in the style of Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries (her name was originally Brunhilda, after all.) Nevertheless, as the final credits roll, you might want to turn off the sound for the ‘Ponyo Song’ whether in the execrable US version, or even in the slightly less wince-inducing original Japanese version.

The first disc also allows the viewer to watch the film using Miyazaki’s original storyboards accompanied by the soundtrack; this offers a fascinating insight into his creative processes and also showcases his exquisite drawings and paintings. The second disc follows this up with a vast array of interesting extras (listed below) which, by showing both US and Japanese voice actors in action, sheds light on their very different approaches to bringing the script to life. The contrast between the two young American leads and the (younger still) Japanese children is particularly telling; the American child actors come across as so much more worldly-wise than their counterparts. The interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi are the most revealing – as is the information that Miyazaki fulfilled a long-held wish while making this film by setting up his very own Ghibli nursery.

I’m aware that there have been a few grumbles of disappointment about Ponyo. Yes, the issues of saving the environment (so dear to Miyazaki’s heart) are not exactly treated in a new or startling way. But this is a film specifically made for younger children; Miyazaki’s aim was not to make another Spirited Away, or even another Totoro. Yet, as it doesn’t speak down to its target audience, it’s a film that all ages can watch and enjoy together – and that’s a rare occurrence today.

DVD extras on second Introducing Ponyo disc: interviews with Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Sazuki and John Lasseter; featurettes: The Five Geniuses Who Created Ponyo; Behind The Microphone: The Voices Of Ponyo; Creating Ponyo; Ponyo and Fujimoto; The Nursery; Scoring Miyazaki; The Producer’s Perspective: Telling The Story; The Locations In Ponyo; Japanese TV spots; dubbing session and interview with Japanese cast; music video of the theme song.