With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
The latest film from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Ponyo draws inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid. While the latest trends are for 3D and a heavy emphasis on CGI, Studio Ghibli continues to stick with traditional animation that still competes with the very best. Sitting down to watch Ponyo I was looking forward to what would inevitably be another crowning achievement for Studio Ghibli.
The story focuses on an underwater kingdom where the ruler is Fujimoto. At the outset he has his daughters – a large school of fish with one bigger than the rest – all kept in a tank. When the largest of the group escapes, courtesy of a nearby jellyfish heading for the surface of the ocean, she ends up trapped in a jar and comes to rest on a shoreline overlooked by cliffs. A young boy, Sosuke, finds the fish and names her Ponyo. While in Sosuke’s care, Ponyo falls in love with the boy but her father manages to bring her back to the ocean. Unwilling to acknowledge her real name, Ponyo informs her father she wants to be human so she can be with Sosuke. She manages to steal some of Fujimoto’s magic and returns once more to dry land. Ponyo’s act of disobedience causes severe disruption with the world as storms break out and the moon is knocked out of orbit. While Fujimoto is desperate to get his daughter back to restore balance to the world, Ponyo and Sosuke must also face the cost of being together and decide where their future lies.
Once again Studio Ghibli’s animation is stunning, though it doesn’t convey the same detail and realism of previous efforts. The film opens beneath the ocean with jellyfish and shoals of fish in abundance. It is rich in colour and draws you into the world immediately. The most stunning scene comes when Ponyo disobeys her father and uses his magic to turn herself into a human. Reaching the surface of the ocean, Ponyo finds storms are already raging but she proceeds to run effortlessly on the water looking for Sosuke. Driving along a windy road by the turbulent ocean, Sosuke and his mother are making their way home when Ponyo spots them and gives chase. The powerful waves take the shape of fishes as the storm intensifies, reminiscent of the horses appearing in the raging waters that wash away the Black Riders in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, perhaps a nod from Miyazaki.
Watching Ponyo it is clear very early on that this film is for children and here lies the problem. Other films in Miyazaki’s career such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) were also aimed at children but they were equally absorbing for adults as well. Ponyo is a good film for families to watch together but the adults will find the drama and engrossing storylines of Miyazaki’s previous efforts missing here. This is a great disappointment as many of Studio Ghibli’s films are close to my heart and remain amongst my personal favourites. Considering a global crisis is prevalent in Ponyo you would hardly notice with the carefree way Sosuke and Ponyo sail throughout the flooded land. Only in the latter stages when Ponyo begins to grow weary and turns back into a fish does the film offer any real drama and this is easily resolved in the end. The opportunity was there for the two children to face a difficult test in order to be together, but in Ponyo it’s just a case of Fujimoto contacting Ponyo’s mother, Granmamare, who in fairness is a goddess of amazing power, but it all seems a bit too easy. Miyazaki’s romances in Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) are both ones that survive adversity and their conclusions could be described as positive though not the happiest outcome you might have wished for.
For children Ponyo is a great spectacle, delivering a range of underwater life, colourful characters and plenty of adventure. After Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Miyazaki did express his intention to do something a little different with his next film and Ponyo does feel like a change in direction. Since Princess Mononoke there have often been rumours that Miyazaki is making one last film before he retires. So far we’ve had three films since Mononoke and I hope there will be more for while Ponyo is a visual treat it is only a must for children and sadly has no room for adults.
I never thought I would be disappointed with any films from Studio Ghibli but Ponyo is unfortunately the one to change that. While the animation is great and the premise to the film is intriguing it falters badly in its execution. Children will undoubtedly love the film and that is the audience Miyazaki has targeted here but given his previous efforts were so universal it is a shame he has drifted so far from this tradition. I can forgive a genius like Miyazaki for not always getting things right and though Ponyo is the weakest of Studio Ghibli’s films I have seen so far, my enthusiasm for their next project remains undiminished.
Verdict: 5/10 (adults) 8/10 (children)
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