The days of mainstream hand-drawn animation seem to be numbered. As the years progress, more and more studios are developing CGI-animated films and the tendrils of this technology are far reaching from animation into a variety of genres, from sci fi to action films. Studio Ghibli, however, based in Japan under the guidance of Hayao Miyazaki, still revels in its hand-drawn animated films. Miyazaki, former Oscar winner for Best Animation for Spirited Away, continues to dazzle and impress with his latest offering, Ponyo.
Ponyo may be one of the more simple Miyazaki films in recent years, more in tune with his late 80s children’s film, My Neighbor Totoro. Despite being a Japanese take on The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki never patronizes his audience of children and adults. There is a complete sense of wonder that is engaging, rapturous and joyous.
The story begins by taking us underwater in a vast, beautiful sea. The audience is introduced to a world of creepy-crawly sea critters swimming about a disgruntled wizard, Fujimoto. Quite soon, a red tadpole-like anomaly escapes from his vessel. The cute little tadpole creature is a magical fish named Ponyo who is soon discovered among ocean debris by a young boy named Sosuke. From there, Ponyo begins a magical transformation into a human, and in the process upsets the balance of nature.
This in itself is a visual spectacle – imagine the wonder of a five year-old as she views gigantic fish leaping from the ocean with a little girl gleefully running across them as she chases after Sosuke and his mother, Lisa. A particularly beautiful scene is one in which Ponyo and Sosuke steer a magical boat through a mountainside engulfed by the sea with creatures from bygone ages swimming amongst the children.
Disney and Pixar have committed to bringing Miyazaki’s films to American audiences. The film, localized by Pixar Studios, features a recognizable and likeable cast. Liam Neeson voices Ponyo’s (Noah Cyrus) wizardly father. Tina Fey creates a lovable Lisa, and Frankie Jonas is a great little Sosuke. Other big name voices adorn the cast, such as Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Betty White. The characters surrounding Ponyo and Sosuke give the story deeper levels to examine. Lisa’s human flaws are easily relatable – she may be reckless and prone to stubbornness when it comes to interactions with her husband (Matt Damon) because of her love for him, but she’s also full of love for her son and the elderly individuals she cares for at her job. The movie is full of subtle moments amongst all the players that bring the characters to life and illuminate the charm of their personalities.
While not as groundbreaking as past Miyazaki films (it is after all, a reinterpretation of The Little Mermaid), Ponyo still illustrates that hand-drawn animation is a tradition to be cherished. The intricate underwater landscapes, the seaside town in which the story takes place and the quaint seaside cliff on which Sosuke’s house perches, are all lovingly illustrated and painted and have clearly been touched by the human hand. Miyazaki’s gentle message of environmental consciousness, love and friendship is a tale that adults and children alike can understand and appreciate.