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One thing that most Hayao Miyazaki films have in common is joy. This G-rated fantasy is overflowing with it. And it’s a special type of joy – the joy of discovery. A little boy discovers a goldfish. Then that goldfish discovers what its like to be human.
Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) finds the goldfish in the sea and names her Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus). He keeps her in his bucket and cares for her, smuggling her to school with him even. What he doesn’t know is that this goldfish is the daughter of Fujimoto (Liam Neeson, TAKEN), a human set with the mystical job of keeping balance in the sea, and her mother Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett, THE AVIATOR), the goddess of the sea. Ponyo’s real name is Brunnhilde, but she doesn’t want that name nor does she want to be a goldfish.
But Ponyo does find a way to become human and that has dire consequences. The storm is unleashed on Sosuke’s town. His mother Lisa (Tina Fey, TV’s 30 ROCK) is worried about the old people at the retirement center where she works, so he heads out into the storm. When she isn’t back in the morning, Sosuke and Ponyo go looking for her.
The film begins with the story of an innocent five-year-old who has a curiosity about the sea. It’s where his father Koichi (Matt Damon, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) works; out on one of the ships. Ponyo is curious about the land, and when she becomes human, she can’t get enough of human things, especially ham. In subtle scenes, Miyazaki establishes the kindness of Lisa toward her son and his new friend. This only heightens our fear when she doesn’t come home and two five-year-olds must venture out on a magic boat across the flooded town. We’re likewise worried that Koichi’s boat might have been destroyed. This is made ever so more heartbreaking because he and Lisa fought the night before about him taking another job. Miyazaki uses simple real life conflicts to heighten everything. His complex stories show his respect for his young audience. He never cheats them.
There are some trippy moments in this film as well. But they’re filled with wonder and excitement. I particularly loved the magical sequence when Ponyo first becomes human and her and her goldfish siblings burst out of the sea. The vibrant animation so perfectly matches the emotions of the scene, which moves right into a thrilling chase sequence as Sosuke and his mother race the huge waves to get back to their home on the cliff. Meanwhile, Ponyo runs along the waves that look like giant fish to try to catch them. Miyazaki fills this scene with the simplest tension building devices. We want to see Sosuke and his mom get home and we want Sosuke and Ponyo to be reunited. The conclusion is well… joyous.
PONYO is much like Miyazaki’s true masterpiece MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO in content, as well as tone. While the film is suitable for the youngest of viewers, this isn’t mind numbing for adults. There is a lot of ugliness in the world, but here Miyazaki doesn’t dwell on it, and yet he never denies it either. Fujimoto has a reason for wanting to keep his daughter in the sea and it’s not just to be a mean old dad. But like every parent, there is a time they must let go just a little bit. A parent must trust that there is good out in the world too. Sosuke is the good. But I think his mom and dad had a little something to do with that. This is really a family film, because it’s a story about families. One just happens to be from the other part of the sea and can ride water spirits and bring ancient fish back to life and can inspire magic in anyone that meets them. Actually the last one applies to both families.