It's a testament to Pixar head John Lasseter's respect for revered animator Hayao Miyazaki that he would give such tender loving care to "Ponyo," the film that should finally make Miyazaki a household name in the United States. There's little denying that Lasseter would love to see Pixar pick up yet another Oscar award this coming awards season for the magnificent "Up," the latest Pixar masterpiece.
Indeed, if I'm being honest I'd confess that I expect "Up" to run away with the Oscar yet again.
But, oh my, "Ponyo," a magical and miraculous animated film from the heart and mind of Miyazaki, is one truly glorious film. Yet, it is so unlike animated features in America these days that one even wonders if it will manage to find an audience in a market that so often clamors for the loudest and baddest distractions.
"Ponyo" is, first of all, hand drawn. Remember the old hand drawn films of Disney? Oh, how I miss them. While CGI certainly has its place and technology is often a wonderful thing, there's a certain feeling that comes alive through hand drawn animation that is woefully lacking in the majority of contemporary animated features. Yet, it's fully alive in "Ponyo."
In this ever so gentle film, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, a younger brother of the Jonas Brothers) is a 5-year-old who finds a goldfish trapped in a jar near his seaside home. The goldfish, Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, Miley's younger sister), shows her gratitude for his rescue by licking and instantly healing a cut. This gesture leads to Ponyo's ability to transform herself between being fish and human.
Much like what happened in this year's "Up," the best sequence in "Ponyo" may very well be its opening sequence, a breathtakingly beautiful under the sea sequence without words that speaks more than practically any other animated feature film this year. It is, without a doubt, the most visually arresting and mesmerizing animated scene in any film this year.
The film that follows and, in a sense, film seems like such a limiting word for all that follows, is an animated masterpiece for adults and children alike. At its very core, "Ponyo" is a film about friendship, independence, the power of imagination and, yes, there's even a bit of ecological awareness thrown in with subtlety and innocence galore throughout.
Sosuke convinces his mother (Tina Fey) to allow him to keep his newfound friend, and they embark on adventures in the nursing home where his father (Matt Damon) works and where he has become steadfast friend with three of the older residents (Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman). Eventually, we will learn that Ponyo's transformation into human comes at a great ecological price and, as a result, Ponyo and Sosuke embark on a fantastic journey to save the day.
Even as I sit here writing this review of "Ponyo," I feel inadequate to do so. I read and reread my words and think to myself "No, silly. That doesn't begin to describe what you experienced."
I am exasperated.
I simply cannot seem to come up with words that feel adequate to describe the simplicity, the innocence, the wonder and the beauty that is contained with "Ponyo," a near perfect animation that still manages to fall short of Miyazaki's best films such as "My Neighbor Totoro," "Princess Mononoke" and, of course, 2002's Oscar-winning "Spirited Away."
The voice work, not surprisingly, is stellar across the board including delightful turns by Noah Cyrus as Ponyo, Frankie Jonas as Sosuke and, perhaps best of all, Liam Neeson in a spot-on perfect performance as Ponyo's loving and incredibly protective father.
While the innocence and gentleness of "Ponyo" may seem to lean it primarily toward the younger generation, sensitive and childlike spirits will easily embrace its good heart, visual imagery and incredibly well-developed characters and family relationships. These family, oh my, they are so richly developed and beautifully intertwined that even as Miyazaki paints brilliant visuals and fairy tale like stories it seems as if this very family could be our very own.
In a world in which innocence is so rarely portrayed with any conviction on the big screen, Miyazaki does so with incredible majesty and grace and awe-inspiring wonder.
This year, other films have tried and failed to blend the sensible and the serene, the true-to-life and the otherworldly adventure. With "Ponyo," Hayao Miyazaki has accomplished not just an animated masterpiece but a true cinematic work of wonder.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic