This beautifully animated fairy tale takes a page from Hans Christian Andersen, telling the story of a fish who falls in love with a boy and wishes to become human. In this case, the fish, Ponyo, is magical, and she grants her own wish, transforming herself out of sheer willpower. In doing so, she upsets the order of nature, and the sleepy seaside village her human friend, Sosuke, lives in, is flooded to the tops of the mountains. Almost immediately, the mythology of the fantasy world Ponyo inhabits clashes with the warm domesticity of Sosuke’s life with his mother, and as the film progresses, the reasoning behind these mythological clashes becomes fuzzy and incoherent. Thus Miyazaki’s trademark “weirdness” is often more jarring than charming, pulling the viewer out of the sweet, low-key scenes of childhood friendship and family bonding. Even more confusing is Sosuke’s mother’s decision-making when the storm hits. Her actions seem forced to move the plot along despite going totally against maternal instinct and the way the character is written, as frazzled but loving.
Despite some very muddled writing and some poorly realized fantasy, the film succeeds overall based on the connections forged between characters, which are genuinely moving. The film’s gentle pace lingers on the details, painting a wonderful picture of childhood love and wonder. Frankie Jonas does a great job with the English dub of Sosuke, making a very believable and sweet young hero, but Noah Cyrus as Ponyo grates (luckily she has few lines). The rest of the voicework is strong and the musical score lovely as well. The film’s greatest strength, however, is its stunning visuals. The style is often reminiscent of watercolors, very soft, with amazing colors and expressive movements. The scene where Sosuke and his mother race the storm is one of Miyazaki’s most striking set-pieces in his impressive filmography. The rest of the film does not rank among his best, which is not really a knock on it’s quality – he is still a master of animation, and has created yet another uniquely charming fantasy populated with characters that feel truly real.