It may be heresy to say, but quite frankly, Studio Ghibli’s last two outings have been major cause for concern. Howl’s Moving Castle and Tales of Earthsea (the latter directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro) were disappointments, but of more concern was that both suffered from similar issues. To say any Ghibli film suffers from issues let alone repeat them is like suggesting that Shakespeare should work on his characterization. With themes close to Miyazaki’s heart, it is easy to see the appeal of the two works to Ghibli. Both were epic fantasies dealing with a world out of balance. Howl’s Moving Castle had a feisty female protagonist and a titular hero who confounds all expectations of how a world-saving magician should behave and Tales of Earthsea had its hero with a dark side. Because of Miyazaki’s personal interests, scenes were heavily loaded toward the themes and characters. With plot and pacing neglected, the two films felt incredibly unbalanced with story progressing in fits and starts and plot points picked up and then left dangling unresolved. With the two plot heavy sources, this bordered on criminal narrative negligence.
Ponyo is an incredible return to form. It steps back from the epic genre fantasy, finding the fantastic in the everyday. Sosuke lives in a seaside town. His father is away on a fishing trawler leaving Sosuke’s resolute mother to raise him as well as working at an elderly people’s home. Meanwhile under the ocean, Ponyo, the strong-willed goldfish daughter of a sorcerer, leaves her father’s submarine haven in search of adventure. When Sosuke befriends Ponyo she decides she wants to stay and become human, a series of events are set in motion that creates a marvelous adventure.
Ponyo sees Miyazaki going back-to-basics. While its story is drawn from The Little Mermaid, its focus is on the childhood magical wonder and delight at the discovery of the sea Ponyo has the feel of another Ghibli classic, My Neighbour Totoro, with a seaside makeover. The back-to-basics approach is also apparent in the visuals with all the cels hand-drawn and animated. The backgrounds are vibrant pastels recalling a children’s drawing.
Within this story of friendship and adventure, Miyazaki subtlety expands his themes. As he gets older Miyazaki appears to be reflecting more directly upon family, absence and the cost of creativity. It is interesting that the two fathers in film are away for long stretches (Sosuke’s fisherman father) or in the case of Ponyo, frantically creative and powerful yet in the parenting department, indecisive and ill-equipped to deal with his wayward daughter. For the first time, Miyazaki brings us a female hero who is not a destiny-chosen child but a simply a mother juggling raising a son with working at an elderly people’s home. While Howl’s Moving Castle touched on themes of family and sacrifice, without the bluster and set dressing, these themes and characterization are much more powerfully conveyed in Ponyo.
But first and foremost, Ponyo is a children’s film where childhood friendships are deeply held and simple activities can transform into remarkable adventures. Miyazaki still has the ability to create astounding moments of visual fantasy, but in stripping the chrome, he has produced a beautiful film where the real world and fantasy are perfectly balanced, and in doing so, has, ironically in a children’s film, created one of the best and most mature films of his long and distinguished career.