Castles in the Sky: Ponyo, by Aaron Pinkston
Though there has been one more recent release, Ponyo is the last of the Castles in the Sky series chronologically. At the age of 67 upon its release, it may be the last film directed by master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Strangely enough, the film may be his most accessible, appealing to the youngest audience of any of his films. Like most of his films, Ponyo is a sweet, whimsical story, though perhaps a bit light-weight when stacked up with its counterparts.
Ponyo, the title character, is a mystical fish who desperately wants to become a real human being. When she becomes stuck in a littered jar, she is saved by a young boy named Sōsuke. Through their shared love, Ponyo finds the will to transform, against her father’s will. Her father, who is described as once being human but is now some sort of guardian of the sea, claims that the world may end if Ponyo is not returned. Through these circumstances, along with a giant tsunami that has set Sōsuke’s small town completely under water, the two young friends garner a beautiful bond. Despite the magical world with seemingly scary stuff happening, the film is pretty suspense free — there never are any moments where you feel the characters are in danger, despite damaging weather and powerful magic. This lack of stakes does hurt the film a bit, but Miyazaki was obviously much more interested in a return to his lighter tones and the relationship between the two main characters.
The film opens in Ponyo’s world under the sea. The long opening scene is told completely without dialogue, wonderfully exploring the environment. There is a running criticism throughout the series, especially in the English-language translations, with an over-emphasis on verbalizing the inner-thoughts of our characters. Almost every Ghibli film opens with a lot of narration from the main character as they explore their fantastical world, usually by themselves, telling us exactly what we need to know about the world and how they feel about it. Ponyo still has this problem throughout — presumably by being catered to a younger audience, there is quite a bit of straightforward dialogue simply stating people’s emotions, etc. This opening sequence is a quite refreshing, though, and it sets up Ponyo as mischievous and her father’s importance without a single word.
My biggest disappointment of Howl’s Moving Castle, the heavy use of computer graphics animation, doesn’t apply to Ponyo, which is much more obviously a return to the hand-drawn animation the studio perfected. The results are stunning. Combining the look of the hand-drawn style with the advances in technology, Ponyo is easily one of the most beautiful of the series. Splashed with vibrant colors, the film also benefits from the ocean world, which is fantastical without being unreal. The major setpiece of the film, a giant tsunami, doesn’t quite hold as one of Ghibli’s most thrilling action sequences, but it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. As I wasn’t able to find myself wrapped up in the drama or connecting to the story’s characters, I was happy to get lost in the animation.
There have been a few Ghibli films solely focused on the themes of growing up, but none quite from Ponyo’s perspective, which gives us a little insight to the other side. If there is a villain in this film, it is most probably most identified as Ponyo’s father — perhaps because he’s voiced by Liam Neeson, but also because he seems hell-bent on finding Ponyo and keeping her away from her new friend. He may be a bit overbearing, but it is a nice portrayal of a parent knowing he is losing his daughter to adulthood. If you take his point-of-view it is quite a sad reading on the film. The film justifies his attitude with talk about keeping balance to the world and that Ponyo’s magic cannot be used on land, but the subtext is quite profound. In the film’s most striking image, as Ponyo first sprouts arms and legs, her father takes her in his hands and squeezes her, desperately trying to suppress her from growing. I’m sure many parents wish they could do this with their own.