When Disney released its take on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Mermaid” back in 1989, some purists griped that in excising most of the story’s agony and tragedy, Disney lost the story’s heart. Those purists won’t be any more comfortable with Ponyo, another animated take on the story, this time from Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki. It’s aimed at particularly young audiences—in the Miyazaki oeuvre, it’s much closer to My Neighbor Totoro than Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke—and it barely has conflict, let alone a sense of menace or threat. It’s essentially a stroll through a fantastically detailed pastel world, in which the plot is little more than an excuse for Miyazaki to dive into a world teeming with colorful (and sometimes prehistoric) life.
Disney’s generally respectful English dub, per usual, populates the story with famous names: Miley Cyrus’ little sister Noah voices the titular character, a willful fish-child who escapes her human-hating magician father (Liam Neeson) and treks to land, where she bonds with Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy voiced by the Jonas Brothers’ younger sibling Frankie Jonas. A surfeit of wild magic activated in the wrong place and time turns Ponyo human and reunites her with Sosuke, while also returning the already lively ocean around Sosuke’s home to the Devonian age, with gigantic, ancient fish-ancestors sporting in the waves. Tina Fey and Matt Damon round out the cast as Sosuke’s parents, but their role is limited in a story that’s mostly about the wonders of being young enough to unquestioningly accept every new surprise that life has to offer.
While the story is modeled on a traditional fairy tale and a traditional love story, it’s more primal than it looks. In keeping with Miyazaki’s usual motifs, Ponyo’s attachment to Sosuke is an unthinking force, as avid and single-minded as the decapitated forest spirit in Princess Mononoke, or the crazed, murderous Ohmu in Miyazaki’s Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind. Miyazaki never lets viewers forget that Ponyo is human-shaped but not actually human; her shape shifts and dissolves back toward fish-dom whenever she exerts her magical powers. In this and other things, the story operates on a fluid dream-logic, or the storytelling logic of a very small child: Events melt into each other without urgency, and a simple act like making and drinking tea is treated with the same complacent, wondrous gravity as magic that calls wave-monsters into being. Even so, older kids and even adults are unlikely to get bored, thanks to the story’s unforced sweetness, giddy highs, and stunningly beautiful visuals. Even in the unspoiled Devonian, real life never looked this good.