“The balance of nature is restored,” declares a goddess at the end of Ponyo, continuing the 2,500-year-old dramatic tradition of Deus ex Machina. Audiences should be forgiven if they needed a reminder that the balance of nature was in jeopardy. They probably thought they were watching a movie about a little boy looking for his mother and adopting a new sister.
But in spite of this tacked-on plot thread (and one or two other annoyances), Ponyo is a treat for kids and fans of Miyazaki, and it has much more depth than you might give it credit for.
A Fish Becomes a Girl
Ponyo is the name of a “goldfish” that five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas in the English-language version) rescues from a tide pool. He climbs the steep path to his cliff-side house to show his mother, who is late for work at the senior center, as usual. But as a prelude told us, Ponyo is no mere goldfish. She is the offspring of a mystical man who moved undersea and a Neptune-like sea goddess.
Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) is very protective. He manages to recapture Ponyo from Sosuke, but she escapes again, and in the process unleashes some sort of genetic explosion “to rival the Cambrian” and usher in the new post-human era. Simultaneously, a storm is unleashed the likes of which Sosuke’s rocky fishing town has never seen.
Sosuke and Ponyo, now a girl (Noah Lindsey Cyrus), are eventually reunited and the storm abates, but by then the world has been nearly swallowed. The sea, now calm, comes right up to Sosuke’s doorstep, the rest of the island having been flooded in the sea-level rise. Even scarier, Sosuke’s mother drove out in the storm last night to help the seniors, leaving the two little kids home alone. All that remains is for Sosuke and Ponyo to set out on their toy boat in search of Sosuke’s mother and the rest of the islanders.
People and Places
Some of Miyazaki’s best work shows in his observations of children. He captures those sparkling moments of determination or habit or captivity that parents love: kids kicking off their shoes in certain way, lighting a match with great solemnity and care, or falling asleep at the end of a big meal at the end of a big day.
Sosuke’s mom (Tina Fey) is written with great humanity, too. She’s a bundle of contradictions, and in Miyazaki’s hands she’s not a bad person for it, she’s just human.
The animation of landscapes and weather is amazing, as in all Miyazaki movies. The landscapes here are drawn more softly than in Howl’s Moving Castle. These are more impressionistic, like a colored pencil sketch.
... And then, every so often, some character will say something for the convenience of the plot, like “I feel the power to the depths of my DNA!” or “The balance of nature is restored!”
The older Miyazaki releases included an original Japanese language track, but Ponyo does not. It only has the English dubbed version.
In addition to the feature film, the Blu-ray disc has a batch of very short special features. The centerpiece is footage from a Japenese TV documentary on the locations that inspired the films of Miyazaki. Ponyo is released at the same time as three non-Blu-ray DVDs: Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and Castle in the Sky, each of which also includes a segment from that documentary. In the case of Ponyo, it’s an old port town on some steep islands. The town is having an internal debate over whether to modernize or preserve the character and tradition of the town’s past.
The extras are short enough that there should have been a Play All button, but there isn’t one. Most are so short that they hardly merit watching.
These mini docs offer anecdotes rather than insight. For example: Miyazaki had long wanted to start his own nursery, and during the making of Ponyo, he did. Ponyo was slated to take place in a nursery but somehow ended up mostly next door at the senior center.
Picture and Sound
March 2, 2010 is a red-letter day. It’s the day the first Miyazaki film is released on the Blu-ray format in the United States. Let’s hope there are many more.
Compared to the regular DVD, the Blu-ray picture and sound are amazing. Picture details are sharper, not so fuzzy. Blacks are blacker. Colors are more vivid, even with the same TV settings. The audio is “louder” but it also sounds less constrained. Switching to the DVD from the Blu-ray sounds like applying a throttle.
Our Samsung player had trouble starting the feature. We had to use Scene Selection because Play Feature would get as far as the production company reel, and then freeze just before chapter 1. There was a problem at the end credits as well; the disc froze just before the end credits started, which was probably just as well since the theme song is cloying and grating.
How to Use This DVD
Watch the feature. Pick half of the extras that appeal to you since they’re all very short.