Movie Review: "Ponyo"

I vigorously tried to enjoy this animation style.  I really did.  Unfortunately, it never captured my heart.  Its simplistic design and blotchy backgrounds did nothing for me.  There are some astonishing action sequences that the animators did a fantastic job with though.  By no means was this film an easy feat, but it just doesn’t have much beauty other then in its vibrant colors.  I realize that this is Hayao Miyazaki’s style and is very well received in Japan.  I, however, am just not a fan and have no other reasoning except for I feel like I’m watching a Saturday morning cartoon on the big screen.  Of course there are many other pieces that make up the film, but Ponyo still falls flat.  Literally!

Ponyo is a cute innocent story based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”.  Writer and director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) brings a new adaptation beginning with a magical goldfish that has a strong desire to become human.  The story begins with Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a kind-hearted 5-year-old boy finding a strange little fish at the shore.  He decides to keep the fish and take care of her himself.

The odd style from Miyazaki becomes apparent quickly.  As Sosuke takes the fish, the sea begins to break apart into separate living creatures and grows eyes.  Making a very odd noise, they go after Sosuke to take the fish back.  It turns out that these sea creatures are brought to life by magical potions created by the fish’s dad, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson).

Liam Neeson’s character is similar to King Triton in The Little Mermaid.  He is an over protector of his children with a lot of heart.  His character is like an environmentalist that doesn’t like how the humans are trashing the ocean.  My problem is that he was also supposed to be the antagonist.  Fujimoto just wasn’t evil enough to be a bad guy.  His actions were clear from the beginning and I never really saw much of a change if he was supposed to have a learning experience to change him for the better.  If anything, the character should have tried to do something actually evil and realize what they were doing was wrong.  There is a little bit of this, but not enough to justify him being the only bad guy.

The themes Fujimoto expresses about being environmentally conscious along with his warmth and care he had for his daughter were all to obvious.  In fact, the arrival of Ponyo’s mom, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), was so short and to the point that I feel his obstacle to overcome was too rushed.  This is a shame because Gran Mamare is by far the neatest and prettiest character throughout.  For awhile these themes are so strong and forced down our throats that I felt as if I was watching an extended version of “Captain Planet” only with an added epic soundtrack.

The soundtrack was definitely grand and ultimately beautiful.  It added a great deal of emotion and impressive large scenes to the film.  Although, without the majestic orchestrated music I feel the movie would have felt empty.  There are times of awkward silence between dialogue and then other times where the voice cast echoes of poor dialogue.  Many of the scenes have moments where I felt like Miyazaki depended on dialogue too much using it when the pictures on the screen should have done the job on its own.  Sometimes the film did show what was happening, but the characters would talk to themselves in order to get across what was happening and give too much sense of what was forthcoming.  For instance, near the beginning Ponyo’s father talks to himself claiming his secret area with a bad door would get into the hands of the wrong being that something terrible would ensue.  Guess what happened just a few moments after.

I understand that the translation from Japanese causes unnatural and odd sentence structure, but John Lasseter stated that they were avid about translating the dialogue to sound more natural as well as have it sync with the opening of the characters mouths.  This was said, but I don’t feel delivered.  There were even some areas that just didn’t translate well.  The name ‘Ponyo’ alone means chubby but without the negative connotation.  There is no word for this in English and I believe there were other instances that they actually had other circumstances like this in the film.

Of course with bad dialogue comes even worse voice acting.  Some of the voice acting was good, however at other times sounded as if the actor was just reading off a paper.  Liam Neeson even sounded unprofessional, but I blame this more on the unnatural dialogue.  Ponyo does feature an excellent cast of voices including Cate Blanchett, Cloris Leachman, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Lily Tomlin and Betty White.  Ponyo was voiced by Noah Cyrus, yes, Miley’s sister, and actually did a great job.  Frankie Jonas however felt like he was just reading rather than acting.

The story of Ponyo’s and Sosuke’s innocent love and morals that we should contain was cute, but I have issues with other little subplots of movie.  One major instance was when Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey) leaves to help the elderly where she works from a supernatural tsunami and her son never appears too worried while he searches for her.  The same goes for Lisa and her husband out at sea.  Even after the storm when it appears no ships have made it, she never shows to care enough.  Perhaps this is caused by the film being more of a young children’s movie then anything.

Ponyo does have some breathtaking scenes and some cute moments between Ponyo and Sosuke along with the quite hilarious Betty White and Lily Tomlin, a cranky old woman.  Other than that, I don’t see the draw.  I know others have loved this movie and it did extremely well in at the box offices in Japan, but for me it’s not something that interest me.  I respect the fact that this is ALL hand drawn animation though.  Music composer Joe Hisaishi did a fabulous job helping the movie move along.  I just can’t see what anyone I know will enjoy about it.   Maybe I have poor taste if I keep hearing so many other positive reviews.

Click for the HD Trailer. . .

Click for the Production Stills Gallery. . .

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Joel Covey
Joel has been writing for SoCalThrills for the past decade covering entertainment, events, and theater since joining the site. He is a CSUF alum, studying within the Communication and Radio / TV / Film colleges.