“Ponyo” is the latest Japanese animation from the reliable combination of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.
Loosely based on The Little Mermaid, a five year old boy named Sosuke rescues a small fish when it becomes trapped inside a glass jar in the waters beside his home. Only this fish has the face of a girl. When Sosuke cuts himself on the jar, the fish licks his blood and heals his wound.
Sosuke takes the fish home and names her Ponyo, but she is quickly recaptured by her father, the wizard Fujimoto, who lives under the sea and tries to keep the balance of nature. All rather difficult when your daughter is as powerful as Ponyo.
Despite his warnings that there will be a great tsunami should she return to land, Ponyo grows herself arms and legs, and all her tiny siblings help her escape. Ponyo’s arrival brings about a spectacular storm, and she goes in search of Sosuke, running on tempestuous waves made out of her fishy family. She sees Sosuke riding in his mother’s car on their way home from the senior citizen’s centre where his mother works, and follows them, making their journey along the winding coastal road even more treacherous.
Ponyo finally catches them up as they arrive home, and although it takes a moment for Sosuke to recognise her, she is readily welcomed by his mother, Lisa. As the storm still rages outside, Lisa worries for her elderly patients. However when the storm calms after Ponyo falls asleep, she decides to go back to them, leaving her incredibly mature and responsible son in charge.
Meanwhile, out at sea, the boat on which Sosuke’s father Koichi is based, comes across a terrifying sight in the aftermath of the storm. An unexplained horizon of pretty lights against an unrecognisable mountain range turn out to be all the ships that were on the water, and are now without power; and behind them, a wall of water, pulled up into the air by the gravity of an unnaturally close moon. The boats are rescued by the goddess of the water, who also happens to be Ponyo’s mother.
The next morning, when Lisa still has not arrived home, Sosuke and Ponyo set out to look for her. Ponyo uses her magic to make a toy boat big enough for them to ride in, although it soon becomes clear that her magic is wearying her.
Ponyo’s mother and father meet and discuss what to do with their daughter. They agree to set Susoke a test to decide her fate.
Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of Miyazaki’s work is that no characters are black or white. No one is a one-dimensional baddie. Fujimoto is no pantomime villain.
Although after providing the voice of Ponyo’s mother, I have to wonder how many more roles as an ethereal, mythical being Cate Blanchett will accumulate in her career. I feel that she and Matt Damon as Koichi were rather underused.
Tina Fey made a lovely mother as Lisa, one who would be furious at her husband for not coming home from work one second, rolling around with her son the next, and cooking for a strange, yet pretty little girl who had just emerged from the sea the next.
Sosuke and Ponyo made for an adorable couple. Their friendship and love as pure and innocent as they come.
Once again, the Holy Trinity of Ghibli, Miyazaki, and composer Joe Hisaishi have produced a warm, charming story where mythology and fantasy is mixed with reality. It will keep the kids quiet for more than five minutes during the half term.