A lonely little boy named Sousuke lives with his mother by the sea, flashing messages across the water to his father's boat. One day, amid the detritus brought in with the tide, he stumbles upon a little goldfish. Delighted by this strange new friend, he takes her home and names her Ponyo. Sousuke comes to learn, however, that Ponyo is no ordinary fish. A visit from a strange man brings with it fantastical happenings that lead Sousuke and Ponyo on an enlightening adventure.
In Gake no Ue no Ponyo, magic and reality clash around Ponyo and Sousuke, testing their resolve. Despite the trials they face, Ponyo and Sousuke form a strong friendship. They meet many interesting characters, and learn just as many lessons from them.
Gake no Ue no Ponyo—Miyazaki's 8th animated film with Studio Ghibli—grossed more than $201 million USD worldwide. It is made up of over 170,000 individual frames.
In 2009, the film won in five categories at the 8th Annual Tokyo Anime awards. It was also awarded with the 32nd Japan Academy Prize for both Animation of the Year and Outstanding Musical Achievement.
Many aspects of Ponyo drew from portions of day-to-day life. The seaside village, for example, is based on Tomonoura, Japan, with some sections inspired by Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. The main character, Sosuke, is also named after the hero of The Gate by Natsume Soseki.
3 words describe this movie: Death By Cuteness [Note: This review is based off of the Japanese version, not the Disney dubbed one!]
If you thought Totoro was cute, you ain't seen nothing yet. Ponyo is the cutest little...fish-girl ever. The movie is loosely based on "The Little Mermaid," but don't think Disney. Think instead of when you were a kid, and the world was brighter, magical, full of wonder and delight. Those are the feelings which describe what happens when you enter the world of Miyazaki.
Story - Although there's more story to Ponyo than your average Miyazaki film (eg: Totoro again), the film is geared
more to a younger audience, and therefore has simply a slow progression of events which unfold for the main character Sousuke, who saves what he calls a "goldfish" from the ocean, trapped in a jar. Unbeknownst to him, her father is looking for her, as she has run away from home. Sousuke, however, promises to protect the "goldfish" he names "Ponyo," and Ponyo slowly becomes more and more human as she spends time with Sousuke.
Art - The art is great Miyazaki as usual. This time, the art reflects a child's view of the world. I particularly liked the backgrounds that look they're colored pencil/crayon/chalk (though still drawn with lots of detail) and the sea creatures. Actually, any of the ocean scenes are amazing. It felt like I was in an aquarium.
Sound - The beginning of the movie was an opera piece, which was quite interesting, and a normal orchestral score after that. The seiyuu who played Ponyo has the most adorable voice too. Voice acting throughout was top-notch.
Character - If you do not fall in love with Ponyo, you have no heart. She's innocent and adorable. Sousuke seems really smart for a 5-year-old, and very kind, obedient, and generous. If I had kids, I'd want them to be like the characters in this movie. The "grown ups" seem to be overly cheery, and this was the main thing I found incredulous in the film. What kind of mom leaves 2 kids alone at night? What kind of adults seeing 2 kids alone in a candle-powered boat, simply wave hello to them? What kind of adults calmly talk to sea-spirits like they're next door neighbors?? Yeah, this only happens in Miyazaki world.
Enjoyment - I love the ocean, and little kids (when they're not brats), and the whole fish-out-of-water element (haha, this movie literaly has a fish-out-of-water), so I obviously loved this movie. You know it's great when you get out of the movie theater and you`re still smiling.
If you like other Miyazaki movies, I think you'll like this one. If you don't like slow paced, slice of life (with a dash of magic) movies, then you probably won't enjoy it as much. If you do, just sit back, relax, and let Miyazaki take you to another world...
Miyazaki. What comes to mind when you hear that name? Cute characters? Great movies? Remarkable talent? Any of these would be normal and deserved. There isn't a person in their right mind whose heart didn't warm itself while watching Tortoro, or fluttered with excitement in Sprirted Away. Which is why when Ponyo was announced, their was born an anticipation. An anticipation for the same Miyazaki magic that has touched us time and time again.
And it is also why the disappointment was so great.
Ponyo was bad. The plot had holes large enough to happily sail through and the characters were about as two-dimensional as you
can get; depth wise, not graphic wise. Now the animation and the music is what you'd expect; Beautiful, inspiring, and amazing. But they do not save this film, the Miyazaki legacy does.
The Miyazaki legacy has the mindless majority praising this film solely based on the name and preceding accomplishments. I guarantee, however, of its own merits Ponyo would be quickly forgotten and ignored due to its many flaws.
I dare anyone to try to explain to me what this movie was even about without delving into any folklore or mythology that wasn't properly represented or explained in the film. I dare myself to make sense of it. I dare Miyazaki to try this again and make it more like his other films! Y'know, the ones with the action, danger, and heart-wrenching drama? NONE of that was here!
In fact, I can re-tell the story of Ponyo in five easy sentences without missing a thing.
Ponyo is a fish girl that decides to run away from her little fish sisters and her crazy-cool father. She meets a boy named Sosuke and they play together. Ponyo has magic powers and, for the hell of it, tsunamis Sosuskes' hometown. Ponyo and Sosuke go to look for Sosukes mom who ABANDONED the children during the tsunami.Ponyo and Sosuke run into their moms and dads, innocently and without hesitation proclaim their lukewarm, mild-mannered lover for one another and SAVE THE WORLD...somehow.
Did I mention the world was in danger? Neither did the movie, cept in passing once and at the very end. "Oh and, by the way, you saved the world from complete and utter annihilation!....somehow"
What a mess. That all said...it wasn't terrible. I still enjoyed what I was watching but I would compare to it to cloud watching; calm, beautiful, enjoyable, but with no sense of danger, drama, or action anywhere in sight. Not a hint of villainy or doom or even excitement. Just....clouds, harmlessly and happily floating along. And if thats the story Miyazaki wanted to tell, then fine, but by all accounts, thats just boring.
ANIME: Ponyo is the eighth animated feature done by Studio Ghibli (well-known for other films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke) and the tenth animated feature for Hayao Miyazaki as a director (well-known for his directorial work on My Neighbor Totoro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). Ponyo was released in Japanese theatres on July 19th, 2008, and won Best Anime of the Year at the Tokyo Anime Awards and the Japanese Academy Prize for Best Animation of the Year. It was released dubbed in Stateside theatres just this last weekend, on August
14th, 2009, and, as of the time of this writing, is already in the number 9 position for box office profits in its opening weekend.
STORY: A young five-year-old boy, Sosuke, finds an odd-looking fish who he names Ponyo and vows to protect. What he doesn't know is that Ponyo is the daughter of a sea wizard and the goddess of the sea, and that she will soon use her magic to turn herself into a girl so that she can be with him. But, unawares to Ponyo, doing this causes a rip in fabric of reality that the two of them must right.
Ponyo's not so much about the broader plot, which has plenty tinges of the Little Mermaid in its story, and serves more as a way to move the movie forward and to frame the events that happen in the movie. It's more about the two kids, Ponyo and Sosuke, and the people around them and their interactions with each other.
Most of the movie is cenetered around the absolute adorableness of Ponyo and Sosuke interacting with each other, and with the people around them, like Sosuke's family and the residents of the Hiwamari Senior Living Center (not called as much in the movie, but its more or less what it is). It's far more a slice of life story than it is one of Miyazaki's previous epics, such as Nausicaa or Mononoke, and you know what? He does this just as well as he does his other films.
The only bad thing I have to say about this is that big threat of the world being unbalanced is very vaguely detailed, and seems like an attempt to throw in urgency in the plot, but it really doesn't end up being focused on at all, and to be frank, doesn't add that much to the plot. It could've just been left as a test of Sosuke and Ponyo, and the movie would've been none the poorer for it.
ART: The visuals in this, as with any Miyazaki movie, are beyond spectacular. If you have the chance to see this in theatres near you, I definitely recommend it; seeing the visuals for this on the big screen is an experience in and of itself.
There are two big things with this that I feel like pointing out:
-The ocean scenes are spectacular, just in terms of sheer imagination in all of the creatures and the detail that packs the screen, and will probably make your jaw drop. And anything to do with Fujimoto or the goddess of the seas' or even Ponyo's magic are definitely some of the more spectacular scenes in the movie.
-The backgrounds on this, I'm pretty sure, were done in watercolors, which add a delicacy to the entire movie.
MUSIC: Joe Hisaishi did the composing work on this, just as he did with all the other Ghibli works. This score has far more emphasis on orchestral and choral numbers, especially in the horns, just a really grand sound in general, and while relying on a few repeated themes, is a really solid score.
SEIYUU: The Japanese cast on this did an amazing job on their characters, especially the voice actors for Ponyo and Sosuke, whose first role this was. They do an amazing job of just being five year olds, which carries the whole production.
VOICE ACTORS: There's some good voice acting, too on the dub cast's part: Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett feature as Ponyo's parents (one's a slightly wacky magician, the other one's the goddess of the sea), Tina Fey is the main boy's fairly feisty mom, and Sousuke and Ponyo are played by one of the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus' little siblings, respectively (that last point will probably appeal more to younger siblings, but they still do a solid job). I'd actually suggest the dub cast over the original Japanese cast, as I like it far more.
DUB: Whoever did the script for the dub actually got the nuances of the original Japanese language, so I'm beyond pleased that this was done so well. There's a bit more added to the characters' lines than in the Japanese version, but I think that has more to do with the timing of the voice actors and their characters' personalities. The only problem that I have with the dub is that it obscures some things with regards to the main plot; I watched the Japanese version later in the day after I got back from theatres seeing this, and there were several moments when I was going, oh, so that's why that was that way.
LENGTH: Ponyo does feel a bit long towards the end, but, at the same time, for most of the movie, its a fairly dreamy pace, so you don't mind it that much.
OVERALL: An amazing movie, in terms of visuals and the dub cast, fairly solid in the story, music, and original Japanese cast. If you have the chance to see this in theatres, definitely go do so, but be sure to follow it up with watching the Japanese version just so that you're clear on things.
*I don’t really spoil much in this review. Like, I talk about some things you pretty much obviously know will happen, but that’s about it*
I’ve decided when going into this review that I would not write it as if I were fighting an uphill battle. I’m more than aware of Ponyo’s fan-assigned status as a minor Ghibli work. My biases aside, it hardly baffles me why Ponyo was fated to have this title. Miyazaki stories each communicate a very clear and cohesive message, and I’d assume the reason why people haven’t empathized as strongly with the one featured in Ponyo has to do with
its relative simplicity.
Watch Kiki and you’ll experience a story of growth through independence and struggle to ascertain one’s value. Examine Porco Rosso, a very personal film for Hayao Miyazaki, which illustrates many a person’s conflict with desiring independence while at the same time coping with their need for the company of others. Princess Mononoke issues a universal plea for coexistence, personifying the defensive woodland creatures and spirits to portray this struggle as a war.
In a formidable filmography such as this, we come across Ponyo, which mainly serves as not only a tribute to the animation medium, but also young love and many of its familiar facets: its rambunctious pleasures, its juvenile tensions, and its unassailable spectacle.
Okay, young love isn’t always an “unassailable spectacle,” but I use this generous language merely to offer my own tribute to this glorious, heartfelt experience. Ponyo has its fair share of flaws; one could argue it has the most so of Miyazaki’s directorial works. But I will not deny how I felt when I was 11, seeing the breathtaking mass of sea creatures occupy the big screen during the opening sequence. Ponyo’s escape from the sea after Fujimoto recapturing her may be the most excitement I’ve ever felt watching any movie. Her silly and celebratory flip onto the backs of fish after fish right as she gets Sasuke is in her sights, inspires. Miyazaki’s main quest for this film is simpler than ever but just as admirable. He wants to create magic the way only he can.
Thankfully, from start to finish the film manages to do all this and more. Ponyo’s devotion to pure imagination motivates each sequence, each shot, each frame. I pity those who have not viewed this film on a proper screen, or even in an actual cinema as I did initially back in 2009. I had already been an admirer of his, but having seen his latest offering, my love for Miyazaki’s work in animation heightened once again.
From its opening shots, Ponyo dazzles with its gigantic, shifting mass of sea creatures. Regardless of a few of the visible drawings being less detailed than others, what’s captured entirely is tantalizing and mysterious. More than ever, the color palette arouses attention. Ponyo’s aesthetic seems to leap straight out from the picture books I read in my younger years, back when my dad would deposit me in the town library to then leave me to myself for the subsequent two hours. Also worthy of mention is the score, which now stands out more than ever, offering dreamlike, heavenly melodies that elevate the scene into a marvelous reveal. By the intro credits, I have a tendency to already be midway through tears. This is a picture that makes my heart flutter and at times, heals.
The intention behind the movie was not to mask the troubles we face on this earth. The tragedy of environmental deterioration is a motif that frequently surfaces in Ponyo, similar to that of Miyazaki’s more lauded film, Princess Mononoke. However, while in that film the theme sits front and center, even being yelled at the top of characters’ lungs, with Ponyo we aren’t delivered a message on this topic that could be interpreted as hamfisted (excuse the pun). Not to slight Mononoke any, since I don’t even agree with that criticism I’ve been hearing lately, but what makes me more excited to watch Ponyo is, in fact, its reliance on pure feeling rather than delivering a particular message.
So yes, environmental deterioration is something we’re aware of and can acknowledge within Ponyo, but it fails to define the film. Instead, it is love, young and immature as it may be, here especially. One can condemn Ponyo for being rather one dimensional in this regard, but with this movie attempting nothing other than to be a cheery, captivating, and exciting romp, that criticism holds no weight for me.
Another criticism of this film seems to be that its cast consists of boring, unmemorable characters. With this in mind, I find it difficult to imagine many will agree with me saying that Ponyo actually boasts one of Miyazaki’s most likable casts. Sosuke is fairly bright and composed. Plus, his resourcefulness makes him admirable in his young age. Despite him being very much a youngling, he bravely seeks to venture out on the water to find his mother following an extraordinary flood. As his mother gasps angrily at her husband’s latest dinner cancellation, Sosuke remains collected, understanding the importance of his father’s work.
On the other hand, we have the film’s titular character, who is quite the amusing creation. Bizarre origin story aside, her boundless enthusiasm contrasts with Sosuke’s more levelheaded state, doing her part in creating a balanced and dynamic pairing to lead the film down its joyful path. Together, they carry the movie like they’re flying a kite.
Sosuke’s mother, Risa, adds her own unique charm to the film. She’s a young mom whose love for her song is unmistakable. Her energy arguably eclipses his, contributing massively to the childlike energy of the picture in its first hour. On the other hand, we have Fujimoto, Ponyo’s active parent who acts as her foil. He is adamantly dutiful and serves to counter Risa with his orthodoxy. However, he is only the opponent out of circumstance. The real enemy is nature and its status quo, that being what is actually restricting our characters from being together. Fujimoto’s sole concern is that the present circumstance of Sosuke and Ponyo being together will upset the balance of nature. He is a noble, unselfish character.
For all Miyazaki’s attempts to add great stakes and otherworldly threats to his story, he never does so at the expense of its light tone. Ponyo rejoices amidst the chaos of its own plot while remaining focused enough to take us to its resolution. Everything goes swimmingly. However, more than any Miyazaki effort prior, this feature requires one’s generosity in the form of becoming just lost in it. We are far from the melancholy of Porco Rosso and the intensity of Princess Mononoke. We are in that realm of pure Ghibli magic.
Though that perspective may not salvage the work for everyone storywise, I think few would deny Ghibli is at their animation peak here, at least with Miyazaki at the helm. Ponyo presents the studio’s most unique individual images, a total of around 170,000. Many of its sequences are the medium’s most ambitious in years (perhaps since Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, funnily enough). There’s the sight of a mass gathering of assorted sea creatures. Later we see a huge fisherman’s net pick up a dump truck worth of garbage. We witness a great escape from underneath the ocean. Ponyo runs on the backs of her sisters turned fish after Sosuke and Risa. We get to watch their little boat glide across the water which has now flooded the island, giving rise to many underwater species that have now begun exploring and inhabiting the space between the roads and ground and the surface the characters peer down from. The color palette is something I have not seen anywhere else in the medium. The water makes me want to reach out and grab them as if it’s globs of slime. It feels exactly the same as it did when I was 11. Everything about Ponyo’s visual presentation energizes.
And if this wasn’t enough already, the quality of the film is once again maximized by its score. I am of the opinion that Hisaishi improved his talent with age. Aptly enough, Ponyo seems worthy to be his masterpiece, at least his finest achievement with Studio Ghibli. The soundtrack may not have the variety in instrumentation of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, but the dynamic range and emotive power of individual compositions has never before been this immaculate.
Deep Sea Ranch’s grand choirs, shimmering cymbals and swirling flute accompaniments are linked by slower segments with playful fairy tale melodies, floating by with endless variations. Mother of the Sea’s operatic solo vocal performance is tender and affecting, by its conclusion becoming almost too glorious for the film itself. Ura Town’s layers of strings, horns, and energetic percussion help reinforce Risa’s rowdy characterization during her first major interaction with her son in the film: the driving scene. Despite it perhaps having been a safer idea to stick to silence, Empty Bucket still adds rather than subtracts in its scene. Fujimoto’s theme raises eyebrows without coming off as too sinister; it strikes a balance absolutely necessary for his character.
Little Sisters (I) is a dizzying, stratospheric composition. Its escalation is startling in how rapid it is. Its horns make way for a euphoric rush of strings which are somehow merely a transition into the main bulk of the tune. Its mammoth transition and escalation perfectly re-activates us, following the more formative, numb, tense scene prior. The return to the hilarity is liberating.
After holding our breath for another short while, we get to hear Flight of Ponyo, which decorates one of the most exciting sequences I’ve ever witnessed. The violins zip past us with tremendous speed. The iconic horn refrain takes the place of thunder and assists Ponyo on her maniacal, merry way to locate Sosuke.
I think I’ve said enough already. I don’t have a credible, intellectual argument for this film. I can’t really shed any new light on what it’s trying to convey because its message and ideas are so blatant. This movie is a pure emotional joyride that can reduce a grown man to an innocent child, not above silliness and simple pleasures. It’s something a lot of us could use a little more of in our daily lives, and that’s why I think it stands out for me in Miyazaki’s filmography. I just always feel like watching Ponyo.
Random extra notes that wouldn’t fit anywhere else in this review:
- The opening credits having that aesthetic was a great idea
- Ponyo running on the backs of her fish sisters, sprinting excitedly as the rain dazzles is seriously one of the most memorable images captured in animated cinema as far as I’m concerned
- I said in my review that Ponyo “seems worthy to be [Hisaishi’s] masterpiece,” but what I meant to say was that it actually is
- The scene with Sosuke signaling his father passing by in the ocean is genuine Miyazaki. Dad wasn’t half bad for a non-character
- Ponyo growing human limbs is remarkably goofy. The huge bug eyes and derpy fishlike mouth with those chicken feet makes for a funny sight
- The seniors are also a great way of adding a sense of community here.
- The tracking shot where Ponyo runs with the light until she is captured by Risa’s towel embrace was adorable.
- I love seeing how Risa almost immediately befriends Ponyo as well. My parents were never really fond of other kids, so perhaps seeing this fulfills something for me
- I know Ponyo loses her magical abilities in the end, but I’d hope that she at least maintains her liquid band-aid powers
I’ll add more to this list on my next rewatch, maybe. But yeah, thanks for reading!
Hayao Miyazaki, one of the most famous directors in the world, has produced many extraordinary works such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Take a look at our countdown of Studio Ghibli films directed by Hayao Miyazaki based on MAL user ratings!