Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Ponyo on the Cliff by the SeaType: Movie
Vintage: 2008

Version reviewed: Japanese Subtitled
Date of Review: 22 Mar 2010

Grade: A+

Hayao Miyazaki does it again, in what is likely his cutest and most whimsical film to date.

Plot Summary
A little fish’s dreams of the world grow when she is rescued a boy named Sosuke. Sosuke finds this little red fish trapped in a glass jar at the seashore near his home, so he frees it, gathers it into a pail, and names it Ponyo. After Ponyo  returns to her home in the sea, she decides that she wants to become human, return to the land, and find Sosuke again.

The Review
The sense of childhood wonder is something that Hayao Miyazaki has already done to perfection with films such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. With Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, he has truly outdone himself in the best way possible. Ponyo is a delightful fairytale, yet still touches on Miyazaki’s environmentalist themes without intruding on the story.

I hesitate to even describe the story in any more detail than I have in the summary. Like Totoro, Ponyo is a wonderful tale told with childrens’ sensibilities in mind, so I think that the best way to experience it is to just watch it for yourself and get lost in the story. Also akin to the other Ghibli films created with children in mind, Ponyo is leagues beyond much of what passes for children’s entertainment in the United States. Even adults should feel the sense of wonder while watching Ponyo.

The animation quality in Ponyo is nothing short of astounding, but that should come as no surprise for a film from Studio Ghibli. In this age of computer-assisted animation, Ponyo‘s hand-drawn production values are a remarkable example of traditional animation. I don’t know whether the film was hand-painted or digitally painted, but many of the backgrounds appear as though they were drawn with colored pencils. I couldn’t spot any computer-assisted special effects, either. Ponyo‘s visual appearance is impeccable, and a testament to the capabilities of traditional animation.

As it stands, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea has instantly become one of my top Ghibli picks, and is probably my favorite from the studio since 2001’s Spirited Away. If you enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns, Ponyo should be next on your list.

One response to “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

  1. “HAM!!!”

    And that pretty much sums up Ponyo.

    Alright, I’m joking. Like the other films from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli that I’ve seen, Ponyo strikes gold. It’s probably the most child-friendly of Miyazaki’s flicks, but that doesn’t mean older folks won’t enjoy it. The kids depicted within Ponyo are never annoying or unrealistically spunky; they’re just normal five-year-old children. A particular scene that drove this point home was after Sosuke first rescues Ponyo from the jar she was trapped in; as the waves with eyes roll towards the shore, but he just shrugs them off as being “weird” and heads for home. That’s exactly what an imaginative little kid would do! Us adults would freak out and overthink things. Not so for intrepid lil’ Sosuke.

    Ponyo herself was a fantastic character; equal parts hyperactivity, insatiable curiosity, and a ferocious addiction to ham. Seriously, she can nearly eat her weight in the stuff, and at considerable speed! Aside from that, the scenes where Ponyo used her magic to affect the environment or other objects (and thus made her body briefly regress to her previous forms) were great visuals, as well as her joyful running atop the living waves. That’s fantastic cinematography that made you forget you were watching a cartoon.

    As popular as the little fish-girl was, it was funny to see how no one noticed that goldfish-form Ponyo had a humanoid face and hair. The only person immune to this blindness was Toki, a crotchety old broad at the senior center. She was convinced that the human-faced fish would bring about a tsunami! (Which turns out to be somewhat correct, but not for the reasons Toki thought.) The great characters didn’t stop there; even Ponyo’s father, a freakishly dressed man who looked like a crystal meth-addicted David Tennant, ended up being quite intriguing. His motives were murky throughout most of the film, and he almost seemed to be a villain at first. (That steampunkish submarine he piloted was pretty awesome, as well!)

    The art in Ponyo was fantastic. The human characters looked very much like those in other Ghibli films, but the landscapes are where Ponyo really shines. Use of color was handled exceptionally well, and the seamless integration between the sketch-like environments and the “traditional” animated humans was amazing. We need to see this kind of stuff in film more often. Too many American animated movies are computer-generated mishmashes; the rule of “less is more” should apply. (The obvious exception is Pixar, whose films are stunning each and ever time. In fact, Pixar and Ghibli are often considered contemporaries, and both studios are huge fans of each others’ work!)

    Moving on to the audio, I should point out that I watched the English dub of Ponyo, and I was surprised that the two protagonists’ voices were actually quite good. I was initially concerned because Sosuke was voiced by Frankie Jonas, the younger brother of The Jonas Brothers, and Ponyo was voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley Cyrus’ younger sister. Both of these actors were chosen due to the overwhelming popularity of their elder siblings, make no mistake. Thankfully, both children proved to be up to the task of handling convincing voice work; within the context of the film, their familial affiliations are irrelevant, as it should be. The other actors rounding out the cast featured some of Hollywood’s greats, like Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, Tina Fey, and the consistently impressive Cate Blanchett. All of them did fine work, as would be expected.

    The sound effects and music really stood out for me, too. Even little stuff, like Ponyo squirming about trapped in a jar, sounded ridiculously authentic. How the hell did the filmmakers do that, without actually trapping a magical fish-girl in a jar?! I was amused by the fact that Ponyo’s water-squirting sounded like a bird trilling; why that is, we’ll never know, but it was a unique effect that added more dimension to the character. Joe Hisaishi’s score was fantastic, with the exception of the song during the credits. That vocal piece is so saccharine it’ll rot your teeth and bones after a few seconds.

    Overall, I thought Ponyo was great. I’m not sure how I’d rank it compared to other Miyazaki/Ghibli films just yet (I have yet to see all of them), but as a standalone, I consider it a must-watch for any fan of animation.

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