It has been widely agreed that Hayao Miyazaki is a master at his craft when it comes to combining rich animation with thoughtful story lines and similarly imaginative characters. His movies, from NAUSICAA, TOTORO, KIKI, LAPUTA, and MONONOKE to the recent HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE are all not only gorgeously rendered in terms of art, but in terms of movie-making as well. Can this man do no wrong? Not really, but it is impossible to expect everyone of his movies to always be five star marvels. His newest film, PONYO, an unashamedly family-friendly tale of a "goldfish out of water", is as lushly animated and alive with interesting characters as you would expect... and yet this is the first film of his which treads into "lesser" territory. Don't get me wrong, PONYO is not a bad movie by any means. As mentioned, it is a sight for the eyes and is as charming and adorable as TOTORO and KIKI. The problem is that the story doesn't stay afloat to satisfy anyone eager for another engrossing, in-depth plot.
For its opening hour, PONYO is Miyazaki storytelling at its finest, in which a rowdy and overeager young goldfish (who later becomes named Ponyo) makes a forbidden trip to the human world where she is subsequently adopted by a boy her own age named Sosuke (modeled, interestingly, after the director's own son). This does not please Ponyo's father, a mysterious wizard named Fujimoto, who is very angry at the humans for their destruction of the sea (this environmentalist theme is not much different from Miyazaki's other films)... a problem he very much intends to rectify by creating jellyfish from the prow of his submarine. He separates the pair and tries to talk Ponyo into staying underwater with him. The goldfish, however, has already tasted both Sosuke's blood (healing a cut on his finger) AND some of the human food (ham, which she becomes inexplicably addicted to), and of course steals into her father's forbidden potions, transforming into a hyperactive young girl (who is the spitting image of Mei from MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO). This triggers a dangerous tsunami which threatens to engulf the entire world with water. Conspiring with his wife, Gran Mamare, a diaphanous sea goddess who alternatingly shifts from super-sized titan to human-size form, Fujimoto decides to test the two youngsters' love for each other. They do this by elevating the sea to the level of Sosuke's house, prompting the youngsters to set out across their now ocean-infested world in an over-sized toy-boat (made possible by Ponyo's own magical powers).
It is at this point where PONYO begins to run out of steam. Although Ponyo and Sosuke are adorable and the scenes involving them are funny and cute, they slow down the film. Where the film really takes on water, unfortunately, is at the climax in which Sosuke must prove his love to Ponyo, presented in a way which is strangely anticlimactic and rushed, bringing an otherwise charming tale to an abrupt halt. This will likely underwhelm viewers expecting another instant masterpiece from the man who has delivered far more interesting finales for many of his other movies. Remember the destruction of Laputa? Satsuki's search for little Mei? Kiki's rescue of Tombo? Porco Rosso's fight with Curtis? The rescue of the Forest Spirit's head? Or even the test between Chihiro and Yubaba? All those resolutions were far more satisfying and felt more complete than this one.
On a technical level, PONYO cannot be faulted. The animation is absolutely gorgeous to look at, produced entirely without a single shot of computer-generated-imagery, and naturally Joe Hisaishi provides us with yet another breathtaking musical score; the best moments being the rousing sequences underwater, accompanied by a chorus and a soprano voice. And the backgrounds are lovingly painted and detailed as any other Ghibli movies.
Having proved themselves worthy on translating and dubbing Ghibli's previous movies into English with top-quality results, Disney Studios and Pixar once again provide an English dub complete with a mostly capable cast of actors. Frankie Jonas is surprisingly good as Sosuke, sounding very natural and believable throughout. Noah Cyrus as Ponyo, on the other hand, sometimes goes overboard in shouting her lines before eventually settling down toward the end. Leads aside, the rest of the cast includes Liam Neeson as the overprotective Fujimoto (who manages himself unsurprisingly well in the character), Cate Blanchett as Gran Mamare (in an omnipresent tone which is not much different from her Galadriel in LORD OF THE RINGS), Matt Damon as Sosuke's constantly seafaring father Koichi (who is good but nothing to write home about), and Tina Fey as Lisa. Of them, Fey is the best voice in the entire cast, imbuing the character with just the right amount of spirit and personality. Her scenes with Sosuke show real chemistry. On the other hand, Cloris Leachman, who was spectacular as Dola in CASTLE IN THE SKY, is disappointingly wasted as one of three handicapped elderly women (she barely has ANY lines!), who are also voiced by Betty White and Lily Tomlin. Of them, only Tomlin's character, a cantankerous woman named Toki, shows any real personality, but if I were casting the movie, I'd switch Tomlin with Leachman. Probably the only really jarring drawback of the dub is a blasty techno-remix of the film's catchy (but ridiculously repetitive) title song, which thankfully doesn't occur until midway through the closing credits.
On the whole, PONYO is a good film; a fine piece of animated work which is perfect for youngsters and family audiences. Due to the loss of momentum toward the end, though, it falls far short of classic status. Since Miyazaki at his least is still better than a majority of other animated films, though, I'll be generous and give PONYO a full star recommendation, because any feature of his is still very much worth watching, particularly on the big screen. (Be sure to catch it in the theaters while you can.)