I’m a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. I hold up Spirited Away as the best film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. That’s no small prize. Alice in Wonderland is my second favorite book written in the English language, and I loathe most film adaptations of it because they lack the right tone and themes. Spirited Away, of course, is not a direct adaptation, but it has commonalities, and it absolutely gets the tone and themes right. More on that, perhaps, in another post. So when I started thinking of what films might be good for our 2 year old, his newer, built for a younger audience, variation on the Little Mermaid, Ponyo came to mind.
Ponyo’s two main protagonists are small children–Sōsuke is 5-years old and Ponyo is in the 2-5 toddler range (although because she originates as a goldfish, this is pure speculation based on her attitude and behavior). This alone orients the film for a younger audience than a film like Spirited Away, where the protagonist, Chiro, is 10. Ponyo is a rebellious young goldfish who runs away from her father (voiced by Liam Neeson and looking like a David Bowie-Iggy Pop love child), who happens to be some type of sea-based druid/wizard. She makes her way to shore and is found by Sōsuke, who decides to take care of her.
What I dug about Ponyo:
- Like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and most of Miyazaki’s other films, a big part of what’s at stake in Ponyo is the balance of Nature with the human world. Sōsuke has to prove that he loves and will take care of Ponyo to turn her permanently into a human and restore the balance that was offset when she got into Papa Neeson’s magic stash and flooded the ocean town. Like Mononoke especially, this creates an allegory promoting a view of the human-nature relationship as being co-dependent, loving, and nurturing.
- Unlike most (or all) of the American-originating Disney films, the parents are actually an important part of these children’s lives, and yet they still manage to have their own important hero’s journey. Yes, in some ways, Ponyo’s father is the antagonist, but in a sympathetic way. Her rebellion from him feels natural and true to the way all children seek independence. I’d like more children’s stories where the parents aren’t killed off (I’m looking at you, Frozen).
- Not only are the parents actually characters throughout the story, when they figure out the situation, they treat the children respectfully and simply test their love for each other.
- It ended with a remix of the theme song which got my toddler up dancing. I think he ultimately likes any movie that ends with a dance party.
- Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s sea goddess mother and Tina Fey as Sōsuke’s flawed but sympathetic mother. They created an interesting foil: the goddess and the human. Yet both, in the end, trust their children to make the right decisions.
- The animated children really ran like toddlers. They also acted like older toddlers. At one point they entertain each other by naming the prehistoric fish swimming beneath the boat.
- Their relationship is very sweet, but not generic at all. Again, despite all the fantastical elements of it, it rang true.
What bugged me about Ponyo:
- Liam Neeson’s voice acting reminded me a bit too much of the overly-theatrical Darkman. Here’s my favorite scene from that film.
Overall, Ponyo was enjoyable and heart-warming. It didn’t frighten my toddler in any way, but it offered him many interesting aspects of the setting and plot to entertain him to the end. He even more or less tricked us into finishing the last 15 minutes of the film, after we had decided to leave it to the next night and get the bath-bedtime routine going. It didn’t have the deep-psyche infestation of Frozen, but it was at least as memorable to him as Cars.