March 08, 2010
Ponyo has enjoyed the most successful U.S. theatrical run for a Studio Ghibli/Disney release to date (albeit only a tenth its Japan gross). It is the most "Disney-like" Ghibli production since Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, has the youngest protagonists, and the most obvious fairy tale pedigree since Isao Takahata's Pom Poko.
Pom Poko, however, was based on traditional Japanese folklore--of the bawdy, rough and tumble variety (like the original Grimm and Andersen), not the cleaned up Disney versions--making it probably Ghibli's least accessible film outside Japan (I give Disney credit for distributing it; now they need to rescue Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves).
Ponyo is pretty much the Little Mermaid (Miyazaki has acknowledged as much), with a bit of Captain Nemo mixed in, and a dash of Ron Howard's Cocoon at the end. Sousuke's mom obviously took driving lessons from Lupin III.
Unusual for Miyazaki, Ponyo doesn't have much of plot or philosophical depth. Ponyo just wants to get back together with Sousuke, and in her single-minded determination triggers a natural disaster (that manages not to injure anybody) and a madcap oceanic return to the Devonian Period.
For Sousuke--for any kid who dreams of toy boats and primordial seas suddenly springing to life--this is the adventure of a lifetime. (I'm sure that I played with one of those "pop-pop" steamboats when I was his age.)
There's no real antagonist or character arc (Sousuke and Ponyo are only five, after all). Just one crazy thing after another, leading up to a literal deus ex machina happy ending (though we are left to wonder what they're going to do with all the water and all those prehistoric sea creatures).
The family-friendly surrealism provides most of the fun, reminiscent of the trippy imagery in Spirited Away. The familiar setting of a present-day fishing village also helps make the world of Ponyo so fantastic. (Sousuke's home reminds me of my parents' place on Casco Bay in Maine.)
A year ago, NHK's The Professionals devoted two episodes to Miyazaki's storyboarding of Ponyo. I can confirm that he was stone cold sober the whole time, a genius working hard at the hard work of unleashing his imagination and being truly creative.
Though nearing 70, Hayao Miyazaki still possesses that unique abilty to directly render with pen and paper the output of his prodigious mind. He is one of the few remaining movie directors with no need to subcontract his creative energies to a CGI render farm.