Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s (Howl’s Moving Castle) latest, Ponyo, might not be the best animated film of all time (or even of this year—Pixar’s Up still holds that crown), but it’s certainly one of the most unique. This exclusivity is due to the fact that Miyazaki has successfully made a charming—and unabashedly—adorable animated film that never comes close to succumbing to the dangers of the tooth-achingly saccharine. That a film so purposefully cute doesn’t turn into the cinematic approximation of a stack of kitten calendars is in itself a major achievement—and what makes the film so endearing.
Going into Ponyo expecting any of the depth of Miyazaki’s last handful of films—especially the political undertones of 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle—is a mistake. There are slight shades of environmental responsibility, but this is never the film’s main concern. No, this is Miyazaki at his most sugarcoated whimsical. This is a movie of purely playful entertainment that could win over even the most jaded and cynical of moviegoers, myself included.
The plot is a reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which follows Ponyo (Noah Cyrus), a goldfish with a human face who lives underwater with her overprotective father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson). It seems that the mystical Fujimoto’s job is to retain the balance of nature, with the key to this being some magical powers he bestows on Ponyo. The only problem is that Ponyo is inquisitive, which leads to her escaping her home underwater and making her way to the surface and dry land.
There, she meets Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a 5-year-old who lives with his mother (Tina Fey) by the sea. Ponyo is quickly recaptured by her father, but not before she gets an introduction to human life—and a taste for ham. Armed with her sudden love for Sosuke, she quickly escapes once more, transforming into a human and gradually losing her magical powers, something that threatens to harm the balance of nature.
From here, Ponyo is part fairy-tale love story, part fanciful adventure and complete capricious fantasy. It’s pure whimsy, full of bright colors and fantastic, magical situations all filtered through a child’s eye. The animation itself is almost rudimentary, never taking on the more sophisticated look of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away (2001). The look is minimalist and simple, purposefully highlighting the film’s childlike abandon more than any kind of conceivable creative shortcomings. Miyazaki’s continued used of old-fashioned hand-drawn animation is a refreshing departure from the vast majority of big-budget, CGI-animated events that get cobbled together and pawned off as children’s movies these days. While Miyazaki’s kid-centric aims might be a turnoff to more serious-minded film watchers, Ponyo remains a charming, big-hearted, endearing little movie, and a nice low-key way to usher out the last of the summer moviegoing season. Rated G.