Anyone who knows anything about the work of Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki knows “My Neighbor Totoro,” his magical early piece about imagination, hope and resourcefulness in times of struggle. “Totoro” still remains my favorite of Miyazaki’s films. The animation may not be as sophisticated as “Howl’s Moving Castle” or “Spirited Away,” but it’s knowledge about the inner lives of children, and it’s simple elegant story arc make it a masterpiece of children’s film.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey
Runtime: 100 minutes
Seen at: AMC Boston Common
How lovely, then, to see “Ponyo,” Miyazaki’s latest film that works in the same vein as “Totoro.” Drawn with shades of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” the title character is a goldfish/mermaid kept hostage in a bubble on the ocean floor by her misanthropic father (voiced by Liam Neesan), whose job is to keep the ocean’s life in balance. She makes her escape and rides a jellyfish to the ocean’s surface where she meets and falls in love with a small boy, Sosuke. Her escape, however, causes a massive shift in the moon’s pull on the ocean tides.
That’s a little bit of the plot at least. But there’s so much more to this gentle, elegantly-drawn little fable. Miyazaki used several different forms of drawn animation, from commercial anime style (cue giant sparkling eyes during heartfelt moments) to more classic storybook drawings. He treats the scenes on land with as much care and gravitas as his dramatic ocean scenes; never have I wanted ramen more than when Sosuke’s mother (voiced by the always terrific Tina Fey) made it for the two young heroes on a cold rainy night. And there are very few animated scenes in recent history that can match the sheer force of the scene in which Ponyo dances across tidal waves made of giant fish, her stubby feet and arms akimbo, and a look of fierce and simple joy on her face.
Miyazaki also wisely downplays the environmental “message” of the film. Neesan’s character occasionally rants about the mess humans make in the oceans, but the implication is that the world is far stronger than us and still, in the end, has the upper hand. Far more important is the relationship between the two young characters, a friendship based on mutual loneliness and simple love of the world around them. Miyazaki understands children more than any other director I’m aware of. The intelligence of his imagination is truly something to behold.