Computer animation may be all the fad in the twenty-first century, but it lacks the personal touch of the classic, lovingly slaved-over hand-drawn style. All of the meticulous care, creativity and devotion one can muster for the art is apparent in every frame of "Ponyo," written and directed by Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Released internationally as the more atmospheric "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," the film bursts with the kind of fantastically lush and colorful images that could bulge eyes and leave viewers positively giddy. Mixing the surreal with the simplistic, the younger-aimed "Ponyo" doesn't quite match the more mature, thoughtful heights of 2002's "Spirited Away
," but is enchanting all the same as a loose retelling of "The Little Mermaid." The similarities to the Hans Christian Andersen story are unmistakable, but they serve more as a lifting-off point to Miyazaki's own lofty imagination.
Hitching a ride to the water's surface via a jellyfish, young goldfish Ponyo (voiced by Yuria Nara) leaves her siblings and sorcerer father, Fujimoto (Joji Tokoro), behind and is found washed upon the shore by five-year-old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi). Much to her father's chagrin, Ponyo wants nothing more than to be human, sprouting arms and legs while still retaining some extraordinary supernatural powers of her own. Just as her friendship with Sosuke strengthens, Ponyo's decision to try out dry land causes other shifts in the atmosphere; as the moon draws closer to earth, a typhoon submerges most of the seaside town and threatens the safety of Sosuke's ship captain father Koichi (Kazushige Nagashima). If Sosuke can prove that he loves Ponyo selflessly, balance will be restored to the world and Ponyo will once and for all be able to live as a human. If not, Ponyo will be banished to the ocean as sea foam.
A fairy tale and a childhood love story in one, "Ponyo" is high-quality family entertainment with a sweet relationship at its center. Free of American excesses like flash-in-the-pan pop-culture references and bathroom humor, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki crafts winning plots, unusual but exciting settings, memorable characters, and scripts of tasty invention. His thematic motives somewhat elude him in this instance, unless the message is simply to not be afraid to take chances in life and be thankful for what you have. By not pummeling the viewer, though, at least the material avoids heavy-handedness. What matters is that young Sosuke accepts Ponyo for who she is, and the pair's tight-knit friendship is one based on honest affection and trust. Sosuke's relations with mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi), an admitted bad driver, are also warmly felt, while Lisa's dedication to her job as a nursing home attendant and frustration over the absence of her sailor husband add lovely shading to her role.
In a change of pace from the expected formula, "Ponyo" does not feature a living villain. The closest to one comes in the form of Ponyo's father, Fujimoto, a creepy but well-meaning man of the sea who walks along the seaside cliffs with a hydrating apparatus that Lisa mistakes for weed killer. Eventually, it is learned that Fujimoto simply wants what is best for Ponyo, and has the experience as a one-time human to know of the trials and travails she will face by deciding to live as a person. Thus, the most sizable manifestation of threat arrives by way of the typhoon that strikes the shore. As the ominous waves, each wearing a face, strike the cliffs and a driving Lisa tries to get herself and Sosuke home in one piece, the tension of the situation rises to match the large-scale majesty of the visuals. The animation in this scene and in every other is nothing short of gorgeous, the whole town, based on the scenic Japanese port of Tomonoura, coming alive as if it were live-action.
With story conflicts apparent but natural, the journey of the characters in "Ponyo" remain at the lyrical forefront. Sosuke's and Ponyo's travels to find Lisa in a town left mostly underwater is eerily magical as the two spot long-extinct fish from the Devonian era along the way. There is also a passing through a quiet, foreboding tunnel, and a climactic moment that almost feels like the animated remake of "Cocoon." What everything boils down to is simple: whether Sosuke's love for Ponyo is true enough to make her human. There is never a doubt in the viewer's mind to the ultimate outcome, and that's fine. It's the getting-there that makes "Ponyo" such a lovely and unique feast for the eyes and the heart.