At first blush, it’s tough to look at a movie like Ponyo and not be struck by the lack of must-have elements expected in fantasy movies—exhaustively detailed backdrops, fluid and lifelike movement of characters in their environments, and a peculiar insistence on double entendres in dialogue designed to fly over children’s heads while titillating adults.
In an era of super-slick animated movies from Pixar and hyperactive CGI adventure flicks such as Transformers, this simply drawn anime adventure tale aimed at children and families may seem downright quaint. The jellyfish and protozoa swimming in Hayao Miyazaki’s rich, blue sea are but brilliantly simple line drawings, and the hand-pastelled panels that illustrate the fluffy clouds, dense forests, and wispy marsh grasses that punctuate the landscape unapologetically reveal the artist’s brush strokes. The plot is rather mundane, by most movie standards: A magical goldfish named Bruunhilde falls in love with a human child named Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas) after he saves her life and renames her Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). The star-crossed youngsters must overcome parental disapproval and physical obstacles to be together.
Oh, and then there’s that thing about the goldfish—when the movie’s main character is introduced, she is discovered by a little boy named Sosuke, who sees her and declares “a goldfish!” Viewers clinging to the very literal animations we’ve grown used to will have to suspend disbelief here, because Miyasaki’s goldfish looks nothing like a goldfish. Rather, she’s a tiny, slightly amorphous humanoid, complete with an orange mop of hair, a human face, and a little reddish garment that looks like a nightgown.
But suspension of disbelief used to be what movies were all about, and that’s where a simply drawn anime such as Ponyo triumphs. Without gadgetry or gimmickry, Miyasaki weaves an illustrated tale as intricate and imaginative as any high-tech blockbuster. The story is innocently engaging, and the characters are surprisingly human in their expressions of rage, emotion, sadness, and love—particularly the parents. Ponyo’s father, the angry underwater magician Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), is a forbidding figure who despises the human race for polluting the ocean but is ultimately sensitive to his wayward daughter’s desire for independence. Sosuke’s mother spends much of the movie furious with her son’s sea-faring father, who’s never home. In one scene she gets so upset with him that she opens a beer, and we don’t see her again until she’s fallen asleep on the floor while Sosuke studies the horizon, searching for his father’s boat.
Ponyo is a U.S. release of a movie that made a splash with anime fans in Japan in 2008. It has been recast in English with a cast of distractingly well-known celeb voices, including Neeson, Tina Fey (Sosuke’s mother), Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon. It’s Miyazaki’s biggest U.S. release yet, and it’s scheduled to play on 800 screens in this country. How it plays with audiences will certainly rely on how willing viewers are to let go of the exactingly intricate CGIs in favor of the simple but elegant hand-drawn animation.