Review: Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Ponyo was unfortunately only playing at the two more far-reaching cinemas in Halifax: Bayers Lake and Dartmouth Crossing. I'm not sure why Empire Theatres would do this, seeing as Miyazaki movies tend to resonate with those of us yuppies who live downtown, as opposed to out in the suburban boonies, but whatever.

Ponyo is, as a friend described it, "like the Little Mermaid, except cooler with no singing." Well... yes and no.

Ponyo is about a little fish-girl, the most magical of all her sisters and the daughter of the wizard hermit Fujimoto and Granmamare, a goddess of the sea. She sneaks out from her father's deep sea ship to the surface, where she is rescued from a jar by Sosuke, a little boy. The two of them immediately take to each other, and when Fujimoto tries to keep her home, she rebels by harnessing all her magic to transform into a human. The consequences? The little town that Sosuka lives close to is completely drowned underwater as the moon is pulled closer to the Earth.

Ponyo, of course, doesn't much care about this: she just wants to be with Sosuke. Sosuke doesn't have any idea about this: he just knows that Ponyo is a little fish he'd adopted from the sea and now turned into a little girl. Fujimoto goes all "GAH!"

As usual, Miyazaki gives us a cast of characters who are all perfectly believable and perfectly likable, even the overly neurotic Fujimoto (english version voiced by Liam Neeson, a fact which deeply amuses some of my friends). (I for one think Fujimoto looks rather like a prim David Bowie.) Lisa, like many mother figures in Miyazaki's many movies, is a solidly good mom, loving and although ruffled, still manages to maintain her patience with Sosuke. Her relationship with her husband is also a good relationship, although she's shown to get extremely upset when he breaks his promise to return home. Similarly, Fujimoto's relationship with Granmamare, however strange and distant it seems, is clearly loving and based on shared goals: to protect the sea.

The visuals of the movie are, as usual, breathtaking, as Miyazaki appears to have gone back to traditional animation instead of going for another CGI-enhanced feature. The opening credits, accompanied by a soaring aria composed by Joe Hisaishi, are simple, yet heart-tugging, drawings that nonetheless hint at the magical surrealism in store for the latter half of the movie. I found some of the camera panning to be a bit disconcerting - I thought it might be less so if it were on a small screen - but, on the whole, the seamlessness between primary world (of Sosuke, Lisa, et al) and the secondary world (Ponyo, Fujimoto, Granmamare) is completely on par for a Miyazaki course.

Once again, Miyazaki demonstrates a deep affection for children, giving them agency, feelings, sensitivity, and desires, when a lesser story-teller would have given them stereotypical childish behaviours. Even as Sosuke may come off as simple and naive, he's still a good-hearted kid, especially to the old ladies at the nursing home where Lisa works. A friend of mine kept commenting throughout the movie, "OMG good parenting!!!" - a sign of how few depictions of non-dysfunctional families there are in typical North American media there are these days. (I have never bought into the whole 'happy families are all the same, but all dysfunctional families are different' tripe.)

Exiting the theatre, I overheard someone comment, "there wasn't really a villain in the story." Here's another thing you have to understand about Miyazaki: he doesn't have concrete villains in his stories. The closest we get to an antagonist in Ponyo is Fujimoto, but for all his hatred for humanity, he still is deeply sympathetic, and is only trying his best. Here's another thing I learned: a story doesn't need a villain for a conflict. Sometimes, a conflict occurs when two well-meaning characters do things that set off a series of events.

Now, onto the voice-acting. I understand the point of dubs, I think. Some people just don't like subtitles. I didn't really have a problem with the English voice-acting in this movie, although I do think it would have been more appropriate to have had the Japanese version, since the story is set in Japan. Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jones did a fairly decent job, and everyone else was good. The end credits had to feature the Ponyo theme song with some over-synthesized over-produced pop version which was cool for like, five minutes, and then I quit understanding why it was even necessary in the first place.

For your listening and comparing pleasure:

Original song:

English bubblegum-pop version:

It's not that far off from the original lyrics of the song, or even the spirit of the song. I just don't like how it was deemed necessary to make this mix to make it more marketable. YMMV.


  1. I have had the English pop version stuck in my head for WEEKS.


  2. And there's the obvious problem that children who can't read yet will also like the movie...

  3. shannon: There IS that, true (although as a child I watched movies without understanding anything or reading subtitles and still liked them; Ponyo is similarly set up that people can understand what's going on even without understanding what is said). Like I said, I don't really object much to the voice-acting, and the English VAs did do a decent job.

    But the oversynthesized pop song though, I still don't get.


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