A goldfish princess with a baby face befriends a boy who lives next to the sea in Ponyo, a strange and lovely hand-drawn animated movie.
With hints of The Little Mermaid (the original dark fairy tale) and writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s own Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, Ponyo tells a kind of fairy tale about a goldfish girl who comes to be called Ponyo (voiced by Noah Lindsey Curtis). Ponyo lives in an underwater boat with her ocean-protecting wizard father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), but she wants to see the world. Leaving behind a school of goldfish sisters, Ponyo, who looks a bit like a baby in an orange sleeping bag, swims off into the ocean. Eventually she comes near the shore and gets stuck in a glass jar. Luckily for her, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a little boy who is playing by the water, sets her free from the jar and puts her in a bucket full of water. He considers her a pet and takes her bucket with him to daycare and to show the women at the nursing home where his mom (Tina Fey) works.
I’ve probably only scratched the surface about 10 minutes deep in this plot-packed movie. Ponyo is retrieved by her angry father, who becomes scared when he realizes that she’s become strong enough, magically speaking, to grow feet and transform herself into a human. Will she choose her father and the sea or humanity and Sosuke? Then there’s Sosuke’s family — his mother is busy at the nursing home and his father (Matt Damon) is regularly away at sea. And if all the magic and family tension isn’t enough, then a massive storm appears off shore — threatening ships and land-dwellers.
The storm and the way it separates some of the characters might be scary to the youngest movie-goers. But even at its darkest points storytelling-wise, the movie is breathtakingly beautiful. Water, so much a part of the story, becomes a theme in the illustrations. Everything is fluid, puddly even. The water scenes and the landscapes are rich fanciful, flowing watercolor paintings. Particularly awe-inspiring are the scenes where the sea itself is shown as a tightly packed school of sapphire and royal blue fish. As much as I loved the look of movies like Pixar’s Up, it’s refreshing to see animation approached differently from the computer-animated standard.
It took me a bit to figure out that “goldfish” was what Ponyo was supposed to be (she looks so much like a swimming toddler in some kind of one-footed snuggly), but you can start to see her fishy self as she transforms into a little girl. When she uses magic and briefly transforms back into a fish, you see her eyes move to opposite sides of her head and bug out and her arms and legs become more flipper-ish.
Even when things don’t make rational sense, Ponyo makes fairy tale sense. It enchants you, holding your attention as it travels through a world of giggling goldfish and water wizards. B+
Rated G. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo is an hour and 41 minutes long and is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.