Let me cut straight to the point – Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is phenomenal. It is a ceaselessly gorgeous showcase for Miyazaki’s unmistakeable cinematic genius. It is potentially his finest film since 1997’s Mononoke Hime, and perhaps the most joyful motion picture to be made by any director since his own My Neighbor Totoro first hit screens in 1988. It has been labelled as a “light” and “simplistic” film, but it is also a powerfully deep (if brief) journey to the core of all of Miyazaki’s key motifs – environmental integrity, social equality and feminist determinism.
I don’t throw the word “genius” around lightly. With Ponyo, it becomes clear that not only does Miyazaki appear incapable of making a film that is anything less than revelatory, but that as he approaches the grand old age of 70, he is still making films with the exuberance and passion of a young man. It is an unrelentingly ebullient picture, every second packed with an almost rapturous glee for the boundless potential of humankind.
If that sounds a little excessive, just wait until Ponyo hits American theaters next month; from the the first frame to the last, I guarantee you’ll have a mile-wide smile plastered on your face. In fact, I smiled so much that, in retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that a film that is so fun could be so very profound.
Ostensibly about a young boy and a goldfish, the more left unsaid about the highly compartmentalized plot, the better. Thematically, it borrows liberally from all of Miyazaki’s own films (particularly his screenplay for Whisper of the Heart), but there is a certain undercurrent of Grand Scale science fiction that evokes the works of Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto; there is even an unmistakable tip of the hat to Walt Disney’s Pinnochio! It is the first time that Miyazaki has overtly paid tribute to the animators who influenced him, and it seems as if Miyazaki has accepted his place in the pantheon and allowed himself a moment to paint in the broad strokes of his predecessors.
With Ponyo, Miyazaki has tapped into the mainspring of his art and created a film of surpassing power and beauty. It appears difficult for me to express my respect for his work without degenerating into pure uncut enthusiasm; suffice it to say that Miyazaki is forever making exactly the kind of movie I want to see: rejuvenating, optimistic and permeated by a sense of wonder. Time and again, he flawlessly executes the loftiest aspirations of the cinema, and Ponyo is no exception.
Note: I have not seen the Disney dub, and don’t intend to, and can only encourage filmgoers to see this (and every) foreign feature in its original language with subtitles.