After two masterpieces (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) and one misfire (Howl’s Moving Castle) — and a quintet of features before them that range from brilliant to merely excellent — Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, Ponyo, feels like a bit of creative retrenchment. The childlike simplicity of the story makes it the first Miyazaki film since My Neighbor Totoro clearly aimed at viewers in the single-digit age bracket. Even the animation has the quality of a child’s storybook. When we watch the hero, young Sosuke, climbing a steep hill to reach his house, the subtle brushstrokes coloring the luxuriant grass are faintly visible — a striking change from the almost photorealistic look of Miyazaki’s previous features.
Equally striking is the absence of anything remotely threatening in the storyline, which follows Ponyo, a half-human half-fish girl, as she sneaks away from Fujimoto, a half-scientist half-wizard who appears to be working to cleanse the damage mankind has done to the world’s oceans. Emerging from a rosy cloud of fish who resemble children in long nightshirts, Ponyo gets caught in a trawler net and decides she wants to become the human playmate of her rescuer, Sosuke. Yet even when Ponyo’s magical transformation throws the world out of balance and raises the sea level, the situation isn’t very scary. In fact, the people in the story perform heroically while finding the situation kind of cool. And when everything is put right, the world is rejuvenated and ready for a fresh start.
The outlines of the plot make this Miyazaki’s take on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” but the film suggests something Stephen Jay Gould might have dreamed after reading Andersen’s story. The inundated landscape is full of Cambrian sea life: brachiopods and armored fish move dreamily over flooded roadways and canyons, jellyfish float in formation, and the Goddess of Mercy makes sure everybody is okay by putting bubble domes over the flooded houses. As I said, the storyline is childlike.
Childlike but far from childish. Miyazaki once again demonstrates his eye for detail, and openhearted appreciation of the way children behave when they are unselfconsciously themselves. It comes in moments as small as the way Sosuke ineffectually hitches up his shorts before wading into the ocean, or as big as Ponyo’s joyful laughter as she skips across water to help out a family with a sick baby. Virtually alone among animated filmmakers, Miyazaki depicts children as children rather than diminished adults.
Waiting in the theater for Ponyo to start, I had to laugh at the contrast between all the laboriously flashy computer-generated imagery of the trailers, capped by the canned razzle-dazzle of the Disney logo, and the simple line drawing of a totoro that opens each Studio Ghibli film. Too many animated films are like beautifully wrapped gift boxes with nothing inside. The simplicity of the Studio Ghibli logo heralds a plainly wrapped giftbox with an inexhaustible store of wonders.