Fish, flooding and friendship are the order of the day as Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli cartoon hit factory crank back into action. Paul Martin thinks younger fans will be delighted, even if Miyazaki's older admirers may have less to smile about.
Imagine if Uncle Walt hadn't been a right-wing, union-hating megalomaniac, barely capable of drawing a straight line, instead piggybacking his way to immense wealth on the gifts of his overworked, underpaid animators, and who on death had his detached cranium frozen in some subterranean sanctum deep beneath the Magic Kingdom, ready to be revived the second that the technology has been developed to build an army of mechanical Mickeys to subjugate the human populace using their high-pitched banshee screams and bionic Pluto attack dogs. Why, we might all adore that Uncle Walt as much as we love saintly Japanese animation guru Hayao Miyazaki.
Thanks to the gorgeously rendered, sweetly enchanting likes of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, and Spirited Away, writer-director Miyazaki has become a subject of reverence for acolytes of hand-drawn animation. Disney's recent drawn outing The Princess and the Frog may have signalled the realisation amongst western studios that churned out CGI features have in the main become every bit as soulless as the machines on which they are created, yet Miyazaki and his cohorts at the Studio Ghibli animation house have been wise to this all along, knowing that a primarily human touch correspondingly teases the humanity out in their cartoon creations.
The plot of Ponyo ticks many of the boxes that seasoned Ghibli watchers might expect. There is a cute kid protagonist forging a deep friendship with an otherworldly outsider child, there are bodily mutations (done in the most adorable possible way of course), and there is spectacular fantasy invading a jadedly mundane everyday reality. It is in this realm of fantasy in which we begin, as a red blobby fish escapes the submarine of her humanoid father, Fujimoto (he looks like Dee Snider crossed with a deckchair salesman) and winds up, via the unhelpful intervention of a trawler net, trapped in a bottle near the cliff-top home which five-year-old Sōsuke shares with his care home worker mother Lisa.
Sporting a silver back-and-sides that makes for the most unfortunate juvenile barnet this side of Charlie Brown's male pattern baldness, Sōsuke rescues the fuzzy-haired little fish, which he promptly christens Ponyo, and the duo swiftly become inseparable. Much to the little lad's despair, manipulator of the waves Fujimoto is able to engineer Ponyo back into his clutches. However a profound change has been wrought in Ponyo thanks to her initial contact with Sōsuke. She is soon undergoing a metamorphosis from fish to human child, and her desire to rejoin Sōsuke on the surface world leads to a potentially catastrophic unleashing of stormy magical forces which threaten to completely envelop the surface world.
It is these stormy forces which spawn the best moments in Ponyo, as the fantastical aspects of the story are given full vent, and the Ghibli animators get the chance to go that little bit crazy. The waters around the town in which Sōsuke and Lisa live seem to come alive, with waves swelling and pulsing, and one of the best images of the whole movie promptly arriving in the shape of Ponyo gleefully running along the back of a gigantic fish as it surges through the unstable ocean. Which is certainly not to suggest that the naturalistic animation in Ponyo is not equally spectacular in its own way to the more outlandishly conceived sequences. Whether it is Lisa attempting to fire up a motorised generator or Sōsuke carefully plotting a path through a hole in the nursery fence, the evocation of lifelike movement is very special indeed. Sure, we have come to expect nothing less from the team at Ghibli, but it is still no less a cause for celebration that they once again manage to deliver.
Be warned though, while the visuals may be a dream, the star-laden English language dub is not a thing of aural beauty. No-one sounds particularly pleased or enthused to be lending their vocal pipes to the project (maybe Tina Fey slightly more so than anyone else), with named headliners Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett being so parsimoniously featured as to make Clooney's tiny cameo role in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut seem like Hamlet in comparison. Bred-in-a-showbiz-lab poppets Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas voice Ponyo and Sōsuke respectively, and their closing credits duet is the most irritatingly catchy/just plain irritating pop ditty you will hear outside of a screening of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel.
Perhaps the biggest problem to surface in Ponyo is the shortage of narrative challenges in the movie's latter section. Whereas Spirited Away's Chihiro has the deck stacked heavily against her, rendering her eventual triumphs and successes all the more satisfying, Ponyo in contrast just sort of peters out, with the kids' post deluge quest being shorn of any moments of crisis. Yes, Ponyo's continuing humanity comes under a degree of threat. But it is laid out in advance what Sōsuke needs to do to save her, and the nature of his proscribed challenge is such that it is barely even a question whether he has it in him to fulfil it.
So while the animated action of Ponyo is as beautifully realised as we have come to expect from director Miyazaki, the drought of tension and excitement seems unlikely to satisfy dramatic appetites in all but the youngest of viewers.
Rating on a scale of 5 years till scientists complete work on Uncle Walt's android body: 3
Release Date: Out now
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson
Cert: UK = U, US = G
Running time: 100 minutes