- NOT FOR ADULTS: 'Ponyo.'
“Ponyo,” the newest feature from Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant Studio Ghibli, is not for adults. People, little and big alike, have been flocking to Miyazaki's films for years, and probably the most sizable portion of that audience could long ago get onto any ride in the amusement park. His films, while always suitable for children, are rarely made just for children. Indeed, their most potent themes might pass right over the wonderstruck heads of his youngest fans. Meanwhile, his older audiences get to indulge their taste for imaginative fantasy free of infantilizing condescension and spoon-fed cynicism. While other filmmakers pander to their experience, Miyazaki appeals to their lost innocence.
“Ponyo” is different in important ways. Not since his modern classic, “My Neighbor Totoro,” has Miyazaki set such a marked priority on the entertainment of children. He accomplishes this by freeing his narrative of any adult perspective. When a young boy rescues a strange creature from the ocean, a creature we've been puzzling over for the first 10 wordless minutes of the film, he identifies it as a goldfish. The adults in his life concur, and we are forced to go along for the ride, despite the fact that this creature clearly has the face of a little girl and a full head of carrot-red hair. We are made to see the creature through a child's eyes, and in this child's eyes she is a goldfish. Until she isn't.
The boy names his creature Ponyo, carries her around in a green bucket, feeds her a bit of ham, has a short conversation with her, and finally the two fall into a simple kind of love. Only things can't remain so simple in this variation on the “Little Mermaid” story. The sea, at her wizard father's whim, reclaims Ponyo. Her time ashore has threatened the “natural” balance of life, which turns out isn't so malleable as a child's perception. Ponyo, however, rebels against this forced separation. Her exposure to the little boy has given her new power, and she decides, again quite simply, to become a little girl and return to her little boy. Her transformation roils the natural world, conjuring a typhoon and as fanciful a sequence as has ever been committed to film.
The little boy and his mother are caught in the magical deluge, but his mother's even keel defuses what looks to be very real danger. She takes each successive unbelievable event in stride, and her stubborn unflappability reinforces the suspicion that these stylized dangers are both less and more real than they appear. The tumultuous waves become objects of beauty and wonder more than fear — though there is also that, and thrillingly. Maybe they aren't quite so high and violent as they seem, unless they are seen with fresh eyes.
The rest of the movie plays out in this same wondrous vein, resolving itself mysteriously and beautifully. The Walt Disney Company, nowadays incapable of actually helming anything of value but well-suited to farming existing properties, assembled a recognizable roster of voice talent for the American version of the film, from Betty White and Tina Fey to less-famous Jonas and Cyrus siblings, but the dialogue doesn't ask much of them. This is finally a visual film, and characters are called upon only to confirm their experiences, however peculiar, as matters of fact. In the end, we are asked to do the very same.
Throughout this lovely picture, I kept thinking about last year's New Yorker piece on E.B. White. Though today he is celebrated as one of the greatest of children's writers, his debut story was met with widespread consternation. Criticisms generally hinged on the book's opening lines: “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.” His friends in the literary world wondered how White could have us believe such a thing. They preferred that the mouse be adopted. Thankfully, children the world over would never let a mere verb get in the way of “Stuart Little.” Of course Stuart could be born of a woman, because, well ... There he is!