Studio Ghibli has been producing hit animations for nearly 30 years and through Hayao Miyazaki has created some modern classics, most notably 2001’s Spirited Away. While Miyazaki is at the heart of much of its output, he only occasionally turns his hand to feature length animations such as 2008s Ponyo.
A vibrant and colourful story, Ponyo is the tale of a fish princess who longs to be human but is kept constrained under the sea by her overbearing once-human wizard father. After one day escaping her home she is caught up in the net of a dredging vessel and dragged toward the shore. After becoming stuck in a bottle, she manages to escape the net but washes up ashore trapped. Luckily the first person to find her is Sousuke, a friendly five year old boy who lives with his mother in a makeshift lighthouse on a rocky peninsula.
Sousuke carries Ponyo around in a bucket of water and learns that she can speak, however before he learns much more her father rises from the deep and takes her back. Ponyo promptly escapes again during a mighty storm but this time with the ability to evolve into a little human girl. With Sousuke and his mother racing home, their car being batter by the angry sea, Ponyo rides the giant waves alongside and turns up outside their house just after they arrive home.
With Sousuke’s mother concerned for the welfare of the residents of the old people’s home where she works, she leaves Sousuke and Ponyo that night and sets off to check on them. By morning when the two children awaken the house is completely cut off by the rising sea waters.
Using Ponyo’s magic, one of Sousuke’s toy boats is made large enough for them to sail it across the flood waters to try and locate Sousuke’s mother. Along the way we learn that due to Ponyo’s emergence as a human girl, the moon is being pulled toward the earth which is why the waters keep rising. If this is not stopped, the world will end but for some utterly unfathomable reason, provided Sousuke genuinely loves Ponyo, all will be well. And herein lies the problem¦¦
While Ponyo is clearly a well crafted animation, it is such a bizarre story that it is actually quite frustrating. There are so many times when you would think that one of the characters would stop and ask “why?” just once but instead, everything that they see and hear is accepted as if it is a run of the mill, every day occurrence.
Even overlooking this (as you must do) there are a number of periods of the film where it is all a bit flat and not enough is occurring. For all the stormy scenes and glorious underwater seascapes there are too many dead spots and also too many bizarre segues which add nothing but further frustration.
Beautifully realised, Ponyo is clearly a labour of love but the overt weirdness and sporadically paced story are at odds with the visuals that bombard the viewer. Both good and bad, this sits somewhere in the mid table of the animation league but for a Studio Ghibli film is a disappointment.