Stuff of dreams mixed with a green message
The gist of the new Hayao Miyazaki movie sure sounds familiar. A 5-year-old boy named Sosuke makes a pet of a fish-like creature (she looks like a nightgown wearing a tadpole) that washes up on a cove near his house in a small fishing village. The creature, who Sosuke names Ponyo, tastes ham and human blood and decides that she would like nothing more than to be a little girl who spends all her time with Sosuke. Casually, you might hitch Miyazaki’s “Ponyo’’ to any iteration of “The Little Mermaid’’ tale, namely the musical one from Disney - which is also distributing “Ponyo.’’
But nothing in the great animation of a Miyazaki movie stays cute for long. Not the ocean, not the trees, not the critters that live in them. Change is constant but rarely natural. And nature is in bad shape. That is nothing new for this Japanese visionary, who’s been railing about man’s ecological ravages for years, most epically in 1998’s “Princess Mononoke.’’ “Ponyo’’ is Miyazaki ranting at a far less bellicose register. It’s also the director in a much less visually extravagant frame of mind than either “Spirited Away’’ or “Howl’s Moving Castle.’’ It’s his cuddliest movie since “My Neighbor Totoro’’ over 20 years ago. The softly but solidly drawn characters drive, swim, run, eat, jump, and mosey against impressionist watercolor backdrops.
Just because “Ponyo’’ is toothsome doesn’t mean it’s toothless. Even within the new movie’s relative visual and thematic modesty, Miyazaki sends distress signals.
The water in “Ponyo’’ is filthy. A fishing boat’s trawling net catches more trash than fish. Blobs of inky, grumpy waves (complete with eyes and attitude) lap at the shore below Sosuke’s house. Ebbing, they leave behind an empty bottle of dishwashing soap. (Try cleaning the ocean with that.) Sometimes the water is as transparent as cellophane other times, as murky as oil.
Ponyo has floated away from the undersea kingdom of her father, Fujimoto, a cranky, somewhat amphibious but acceptably human-looking environmentalist, voiced, in this English-language version, by Liam Neeson. Fujimoto has rooms full of vials and vases of elixirs. He has sired a school of little critters just like Ponyo, whom he named Brunhilde. Cate Blanchett lends her voice to the mother, Gran Mamare, a celestial aquatic deity with a chili-pepper necklace and more regal air of tolerance than her petulant husband. (The casting of children is nifty. Sosuke’s voice belongs to Frankie Jonas, who, because he’s not old enough to be in his brothers’ band, is called the Bonus Jonas. Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah speaks for Ponyo.)
Fujimoto loathes humans for what they have done to the waters. When Ponyo leaves him, he follows her to the surface with his flowing hair, wild capes, and candy-stripe suits. He might be genetically connected to the ocean, but, sartorially, he shares DNA with Willy Wonka. The news that Ponyo wants to be human depresses him. But Miyazaki refuses to cast Fujimoto as a villain. He’s just a concerned parent, a fretful lover of the earth’s water, and a kind of creep. The sight of him stalking Sosuke’s house in his getup, with a garden sprinkler attached to a pack on his back, is delightfully strange physical comedy.
“Ponyo’’ is a movie loaded with strange delights. There are lots of permeable membranes and fish that glow gold. Sosuke’s mother (Tina Fey) licks an ice cream cone while driving her car on a winding road. She also works at a nursing home where old women (Cloris Leachman and Betty White do two of the voices) leave their wheelchairs and do miraculous jogs. Fujimoto cups his hands over Ponyo and screams, “Revert! Revert!’’ as she defiantly transforms herself into a human. As a girl, she has legs and feet that stick out from a large pair of white pantaloons. She looks like a large gressorial bird - or a Macy’s parade float (never more so than when she sprints atop the crest of rushing waves). It seems that her arrival on dry land brings with it a serious storm that abates only when Ponyo and Sosuke find each other.
For a movie with so many characteristically dreamy flourishes, it’s the mundane ones that are most magical, in part because animation tends to emphasize the extraordinary: the pouring of hot water over ramen, Sosuke’s patient removal of a pair of binoculars and a sailor’s cap before pushing a big toy boat, a sequence in which Sosuke sends light signals to his seaman father (Matt Damon) while his mother sulks on the floor over dad.
Many of the cues in the extraordinary first third of Pixar’s “Up’’ seem to have sprung, in part, from Miyazaki, who alchemizes the ordinary and the irregular. Daily existence is reconceived at a dreamier scale. In “Ponyo,’’ the two are so thoroughly integrated that it’s pointless to make a distinction. Ramen is magic. A darker instance of that conflation is the dangerous weather that produces what can rightly be called a natural disaster. Its effects, for our two little heroes, become the stuff of adventure so that what might usually be an ending could easily pass for a trippy aquatic afterlife.