Ponyo (2009)

Rated: G
Length:  101 min.
Age: 4 and up.

Scary Factor: typhoon and tsunami, storm at sea mitigated by sight of little girl happily running on top of the waves!; entire island is submerged in huge flood, but no casualties

Intense scenes: twice Sosuke thinks his fish is dead (briefly); after floods Sosuke finds his mother’s car, eerily empty, and starts to cry, but finds her soon after

Language: mother calls the oddball wizard a “freakshow”; she also calls her husband a “Jerk!”; the wizard calls humans as a species “filthy” and “stupid” (which is justified)

Interests: ocean, sea creatures, magic, nature, spirits, boats, fish, wizards

Next: BOOK: The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Andersen); MOVIES: My Neighbor Totoro, Finding Nemo (a little scarier), The Little Mermaid (a lot scarier)

A re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid tale. A five-year-old boy (Sosuke) finds a little goldfish, whom he names Ponyo. Ponyo falls in love with Sosuke and decides she wants to be human. She is the daughter of a wizard who lives under the sea working his magic to battle man’s pollution of the ocean. The wizard opposes his daughter’s plans and takes her back home with him, so she unleashes the power of some kind of magical well to escape. The magic released causes an incredible storm, wind and sea lash at the coastal village as Ponyo, now a little girl, gleefully runs on top of the waves to return to Sosuke. Her actions have unbalanced the very forces of nature, the oceans threaten to flood the entire earth. Her mother – an enormous and beautiful goddess of the ocean – must return to set things right. It may be based on a tragic fairy tale, but this story has a happy ending.

After enjoying the magically benign My Neighbor Totoro, this film came as quite a surprise. Still aimed at a young audience, this story is epic in scale, yet still strangely benign. There isn’t even a villain. At heart Ponyo is simply a quarrel between a father and daughter over what she wants to be when she grows up… a quarrel that threatens to end life on earth as we know it. Beautifully. I mean it – the animation is typical Miyazaki: breathtakingly gorgeous, with a million telling details. And by scaling up the repercussions of the plot (from the simple household drama of Totoro), the result is positively mythic, dare I say Wagnerian? (Watch when Ponyo and her many sisters whip up the typhoon and the music mimics the “Ride of the Valkyries”.)

The five-year-old hero Sosuke is a terrific role model, responsible and conscientious to a fault, thoughtful and obedient, and kind and respectful to the elderly ladies in the home where his mother works. His mother, though a bit of a hothead, is caring and understanding. The wild child Ponyo is utterly indefatigable, always grinning and steadfast in her love for Sosuke.

The only character close to being a villain is Ponyo’s father the wizard, however his hatred of humans is almost treated as an aside, and his magic never appears particularly threatening or scary. In fact the ‘rules’ of the whole situation are bizarrely vague, resulting in the strange feeling that nothing serious is ever at stake. No cliff-hanging, no real conflict, no apparent danger… and yet engaging and exciting. Miyazaki has walked a very fine line here and succeeded admirably.

The biggest concerns, I would think, would be for any child who has had any kind of traumatic flooding/storm experience, because the typhoon and tsunami sequences are really overpowering. The whole village is submerged, though nowhere does it appear that anyone has been hurt. The wildly churning waves are wonderfully animated. The height of the storm, in which Sosuke’s mom drives crazily through the crashing waves up the mountain road, is somehow made less frightening by the sight of Ponyo-the-little-girl running across the tops of the waves, laughing merrily. Wow! I found the storm alarming but my daughter didn’t. It was presented simply, without any ‘threat music’ or hysteria on anyone’s part.

Standing on the cliff road with his mother, Sosuke is actually blown over the edge but she grabs hold of his hand. Sounds scarier than it is – a very quick moment, with no music buildup, and they simply jump back in the car and drive on.

The apocalyptic nature of the storm and flood may look frightening in print, but strangely enough it is not disturbing at all (unless your child has some issues with water/waves or storms). Nothing is ‘life and death’ in this story, even when the very forces of nature are out of balance, and the too-close moon threatens to pull the water over everyone. In fact this is all presented as simply strange and wonderful. Throughout the storm and flood (of biblical proportions) nobody is seen to panic, the adults just look concerned. And the next day all the villagers appear, plucky and safe in a flotilla of boats. In fact, as soon as Ponyo’s mother, the gigantic sea goddess, appears, glowing and smiling serenely, one feels that everything will be all right.

There are a few moments of intense emotion on Sosuke’s part, but they’re brief. Twice Sosuke worries that his newfound pet is dead, but she quickly revives. When the waves whisk Ponyo back to her father Sosuke cries. During the storm he stares out at the waves and asks if they could sink ships. He doesn’t mention his father, whom we’ve already seen is out at sea. His mother quickly answers no, the ships will be all right and she shows no signs of worry herself, so the moment just slides by. Finally, Sosuke finds his mother’s car, eerily abandoned. He calls for her and tears stream down his face. Ponyo takes his hand and simply says “Let’s go find your mother.” Thankfully none of these moments are unduly milked for emotional impact, through syrupy soundtrack or what-have-you.

Another scene which may strike a chord with some viewers – Sosuke’s mom grows very angry at her husband for breaking his promise to come home. She slams down the phone and shouts, “Jerk!” then bangs things around a bit, even pops open a beer (which we don’t see her drink). Later when the father signals them from the ship she angrily signals back “Bug off bug off bug off…” Sosuke soon cheers her up again, but the display of emotion is a little jarring compared to the unrelenting cheeriness of My Neighbor Totoro.

Near the beginning, when the wizard comes ashore looking for his daughter, Sosuke’s mother says of him: “What a freakshow!” then hurriedly tells her son never to call anyone that and that we never judge by appearances.

Okay, one other thing that alarmed me but this is very much an adult view: his mother drives like a maniac on the cliff road and it made me nervous!

In conclusion… Surprisingly enough, in light of the apocalyptic strains running through this story, Ponyo retains a benign tone throughout. Sosuke is a wonderful role model. This movie is gorgeous to look at and magical from start to finish.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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