Based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale, The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is a story about friendship and love. Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) is a five years-old boy who one day finds a goldfish, Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus), trapped in a jar near his home. Sosuke rescues Ponyo and treats her with the love and care that a pet goldfish deserves. Unbeknownst to Sosuke, Ponyo is no ordinary goldfish, her father (Liam Neeson) is a powerful wizard and her mother is the goddess of the sea (Cate Blancett). Ponyo soon falls in love with Sosuke and is determined to do anything to become human. Yet Ponyo does not realize the devastating consequences this may have on the world.
I was lucky enough to see Hayao Miyazaki in person, at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, when he held a brief Q & A session for his film Spirited Away. Miyazaki stated that after making films like Princess Mononoke, he wanted to make a film that his grandchildren could enjoy. Well if Spirited Away was made for his grandchildren, then I must assume that Ponyo is for his great-grandchildren. This is the only way I can see him justify this in coherent mess. Spirited Away was a film that did not talk down to the children who watched it. It offered several messages on family, duty, and love that both children and adults could understand. Ponyo is the exact opposite of this, Miyazaki tries to make grand statements about responsibility, love, taking care of the environment, etc. Yet opt to convey these messages by talking to core audience like they are babies. This uneven juxtaposition plagues the picture all the way to the very end.
On one hand Miyazaki revels in the innocence of youth and the friendships that often result from it. The relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo is similar to two kids at a family gathering. Inevitably one child, in this case Ponyo, will run around mimicking everything the other says and does. It may be annoying to the rest of us, but the kids are having fun in their own little world. It is this sense of play and abundant energy that Miyazaki wants children to cherish. Yet Miyazaki then turns around and gives Sosuke and Ponyo a quest which not only impacts their future together, but of the fate of the world as well. One of the most ridiculous scenes in the entire film comes when Sosuke's mom (Tina Fey) decides to leave Sosuke and Ponyo, at home alone, in the midst of a violent storm. Why does the mother leave? well she is worried about the folks in the retirement home where she works. Before leaving she gives Sosuke a speech regarding how, at age five, he is mature enough to take care of himself and keep Ponyo safe. Seriously. Worst mother of the year award goes to... .
Even if you are willing to ignore the ages of the two main characters in relation to the themes in the story, it is tough to ignore how sloppy the plot and overall editing is. Ponyo is heavy on childish repetition but slim on substance. The lack of a coherent plot is one of the most shocking aspects of the film. Especially when you consider the source material it is based on. The film often feels like it was thrown together last minute. Issues are raised but never followed through with, characters disappear for long periods of time, people make silly decisions for no other reason but to advance the story, etc.
The best examples of all the story and editing flaws become apparent when looking at the characters, like Fujimot (Neeson) for example, directly. Despite looking human, Fujimoto "dries out" when on land but still needs an air bubble to travel underwater. Fujimoto is in the house when Ponyo first tries to transform, yet somehow is nowhere to be found once Ponyo falls in the potions and sets the catastrophic events in motion. Also, one minute Fujimoto is determined to bring Ponyo home because her being human will set the world in flux. Yet, later on, Fujimoto and Gran Mamare (Blanchett) whittle the whole issue down to a "as long as he treats my daughter well, I'm fine with it" style discussion. Which makes the quest that Sosuke and Ponyo find themselves on seem rather pointless when you really think about it.
I know many will say that I am being too harsh on the film, but I refuse to use the "it's meant for kids" excuse to justify the film's many shortcomings. Hayao Miyazaki has proven in the past that he can make quality children's films that are full of substance and beautiful animation. Yet, with Ponyo, Miyazaki is merely relying on his wonderful animation skills to coast through. Unfortunately, it will take far more than pretty scenery to make Ponyo worth even a rental. While Miyazaki's overall track record speaks for itself, Ponyo is clearly one of his weakest films to date.