5-year old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi) lives in a seaside town with his mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi), his father captaining a ship that is not yet due to return to harbour. While playing by the shore one day he discovers a goldfish whom he names Ponyo (Yuria Nara). This is no ordinary goldfish however; Ponyo is the daughter of the goddess of the sea herself and has escaped from her father, the wizard Fujimoto (George Tokoro). She uses her own magic to turn into a human. Her transformation sees a great storm blow up around the town submerging many houses underwater and Ponyo and Sosuke set off to help.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is somewhat unique in featuring a young boy as its protagonist. It perfectly captures the joy and adventurous spirit of childhood, with Sosuke’s mannerisms both charming and fun while also giving the character agency and intelligence. The opening sequence of the film is an incredible display of the talented animators, with shoals of fish and marine species brought to life. What the film does well is in having a simple yet expressive style. The first introduction of Ponyo is a perfect example, her design consisting of little more than a pair of eyes and a mouth, yet still able to capture a whole range of emotions. Another of the film’s strengths is the sense of movement and momentum. Being set by, on and in the sea, we have waves rolling and crashing, rain pouring, and a constant sense of flow that helps drive the plot forward and adds visual excitement. This follows through to other elements, whether Lisa’s car that swerves around the road, or Sosuke and Ponyo’s childish gambolling, everything keeps your eyes fixed to the screen.
As with many Ghibli films, Joe Hisaishi again provides a memorable, light-hearted score, riffing on the theme song that plays over the credits. It’s hard not to find yourself humming the heart-warming tune after a few listens.
While the film is clearly pitched at a younger audience, with 5-year old protagonists, a story of magic, and plenty of humour, it treats them with respect. The story’s most clear influence is perhaps “The Little Mermaid”, with the story of a fish wanting to become a human and the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, but the film also has themes of environmentalism, self-sufficiency, the dangers of natural disasters, and the power of the ocean. At heart it is a story about humanity’s relationship with the sea. Ponyo’s restless energy seems to reflect the sea itself, as she rushes around, while Sosuke is almost a stand in for mankind. His affection for Ponyo shows us that we should respect and care for the sea. Sosuke’s bravery and kindness comes from him being a child and seeing clearly, as opposed to the adults around him, who have lost sight of what is important, succumbing to greed and laziness. Sosuke is not afraid of the sea, but sees it as a companion and something to be lived with as opposed to conquered. An incredible fairytale story with action, laughs and lots of heart.