Sea my friends: Ponyo, on a Cliff by the Sea ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2009)

If you are not particularly in the mood to watch summer movie viscera exploding across the screen in a sea of gore, I do have an alternative suggestion. The newest film from anime master Hayao Miyazaki has finally reached U.S. theatres (in limited release right now).Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a slight but lovely tale in the Hans Christian Andersen vein, infused with the lush visual magic we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli.

A young boy named Sosuke, who lives (wait for it)…on a cliff by the sea discovers an amorphous ocean creature with vaguely humanoid features floundering on the beach one.  Naming “her” Ponyo, he lovingly nurses it back to health. Imagine his surprise when the little fish begins to mimic human speech (at the point where she says, “Ponyo loves Sosuke!” I couldn’t help but wonder if Miyazaki was homage to the classic “Fa loves Pa!” line from Day of the Dolphin).

Sosuke’s affinity and kindness toward his “pet” is soon reciprocated via a  wondrous transmogrification; it’s sort of a puppy-love take on Wings of Desire. Complications ensue when Ponyo’s dad (a Neptune-type sea  god) registers disapproval by unleashing the power of the ocean.

Although many of Miyazaki’s recurring themes are on display, they are less strident than usual; still, I think this is the director’s most accessible and straightforward storytelling since My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll admit, in the opening scenes I was initially a bit dismayed that the animation seemed more simplistic than usual (at least by Studio Ghibli’s own standards); but as the film unfolded I came to realize that the use of soft lines and muted pastels is a stylistic choice that meshes perfectly with the gentle rhythms of its narrative.

My review is based on a screening of the Japanese PAL DVD that is already available. I still anticipate catching it on the big screen (always preferable), especially for some gorgeous and amazingly detailed underwater milieus, and a powerful sequence of an ocean tempest that features the most breathtaking animation I’ve seen in quite a while. Overall, it may pale when compared to, say, Spirited Away, but in my experience, there is no such thing as “mediocre” Miyazaki. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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