In many of Hayao Miyazaki's anime masterpieces, water waves, ripples and eddies provide a fascinating back-canvas to his hand-drawn cel animation. It stands to reason then, that he'd eventually create a film about the ocean. In his recent animated feature, "Ponyo," breath-taking visuals of undulating jellyfish and prehistoric undersea creatures accompany an eco-friendly story about a goldfish who wants to become a walking, talking, real live girl.
While touted by distributor Disney as a cousin of "The Little Mermaid," spunky Ponyo uses her own power to evolve from membership in the gill club into a four-limbed human. Unlike Ariel, she transcends the loss-of-voice genre altogether. While not the most complex film by the anime master, who often weaves Shinto nature mythology to produce coming-of-age stories with fantastic visual twists like "Spirited Away" (2001) or "Princess Mononoke" (1997), "Ponyo" approaches "My Neighbor Totoro" (1998) in spirit. And, given the hackneyed approach to gendered characterization and smart-alecky kid fare produced by Disney and others, "Ponyo" transcends G-rated offerings on current screens.
Without an evil undersea queen like Ursula, the big bad in "Ponyo" takes form as human-made below-the-sea sludge and garbage. Yet humans provide plenty of big good as well, underscoring Miyazaki's beyond black-and-white world view. The film centers on the friendship between Ponyo and her friend, Sosuke, a five-year-old boy who vows to look after her on land. In contrast to Disney's orphan universe, Sosuke's mother Lisa (voiced with mettle by Tina Fey) is an active multi-tasker with a full-time job working for the wheelchair set. Cameo voices for the elderly ladies include Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman.
Miyazki's films universally feature strong female characters, caring male ones (including Ponyo's father, voiced by Liam Neeson) and a magical realism drawn from the mysterious forces of nature. In innovative tsunami scenes, waves appear as powerful cascading blue fish, and at times the ocean has eyes like a sea monster. Marine life is out of balance, and Ponyo's friendship with Sosuke holds the key to its restoration.
As in all of Miyazaki's films, selflessness and inter-connectivity contribute to resolving chaos and discord. Yet, while Sosuke's willingness to care for the fish/girl proves affirming, it does not default to boy-rescues-girl. Ponyo has the power to transform herself as well as inanimate objects by sheer force of will, and her fierce link to the boy proves equally pivotal.
Lisa, indomitable in her drive to care for others as well, instills in Sosuke a refreshing level of independence unfamiliar to American parents plugged into the safety hyper drive. He plays on the beach solo, walks across the garden to his day care and stays home with Ponyo while Lisa braves the storm to rescue others.
The voice of Cate Blanchett performs a Galadriel-esque turn as Ponyo's ocean goddess mother, even if her Disney-Princess aesthetic lacks visual innovation. And, while the story's resolution about unconditional love restoring balance to the oceans may be too sweet for the jaded, it marks a respite from wisecracking consumerist fare with fast-food tie-ins. For enviro-friendly entertainment and overall artistry, it's a go-see.