Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film was released in the United States this summer, generating much discussion about its visual beauty and unusual story. Reaction from critics here has been mostly glowing, while reaction from viewers has been mixed between those who adored it and those who found it confusing or strange. As a longtime fan of Miyazaki, I had my own expectations going into this film, only to have them torn away one by one, leaving a film which is so different than other films of its kind it almost defies analysis.
We all go into a film with expectations, and every film also creates its own in the opening scenes. Miyazaki’s films are known for their visual beauty, strong characters and epic storytelling, and the first half of Ponyo contains all the ingredients of a classic fantasy adventure – a magical world, plucky heroes, a dangerous wizard, and potential threat to humanity. And yet this is not an adventure film (despite the many epic scenes); it is a film about two young children becoming friends, despite the many forces bent on keeping them apart. Seems simple enough – though this film is far from simple. Besides the themes of friendship and love, the film touches on the environment, humankind’s place in the world, relationships between parents and children, growing up, growing old, and life itself. Miyazaki has said that he wanted to make a simple film for children, but I suspect there are so many ideas thrashing around in his head, he can’t help but let them slip out and populate his films like fish in the sea.
Nothing about this film is typical, it takes unexpected turns and leaves you both breathless and puzzled – it's a film that makes you think. It is interesting to observe the many different reactions to this film from young and old, positive and negative. My own reaction was mixed. I was confused by some plot threads which were not explained very clearly (at least in the dubbed version) and a resolution that seemed to fall short. Yet at the same time I was overwhelmed by the sheer force, the cinematic exuberance of the film, embodied in one of the strongest young heroines ever, Ponyo herself. In casting his net for something big, Miyazaki may have pulled in a few stray tires, but he also pulled in a true gem, one that outshines the murky depths and lifts the film to greater heights. Ponyo the character is literally a force of nature, and deserves a separate analysis and celebration of her own.
This is an amazing film in so many ways. Like its title character, it is at once childish, headstrong, awe-inspiring, and impossible to pin down. It operates by its own rules of storytelling – there is no clear villain, no story arc, subplots are not followed through – and yet for all that, it is a true work of art, worthy of discussion and debate for years to come. A simple film for children? In many ways yes, it cheerfully operates on the level of a small child. Hopefully someday I’ll be young enough to appreciate it.