Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – A review!?

I don’t usually do full out reviews, because I don’t think I’m particularly good at writing them, but I wanted to say something about Ponyo, so what the hell. I didn’t actually watch the Disney dub, but watched a fansub version instead. All the talk about the Disney release reminded me that this movie’s been out in Japan since last year. At some point I do want to check out the Disney dub, because Disney’s Ghibli adaptations are the rare movies where I think the voice dubs are really well done. In fact, I still haven’t seen Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle with the original Japanese voice cast. Anyway onto the review.

Ponyo the goldfish girl
There’s something strange in the water

The story:

Ponyo is a simple love story at it’s heart. And I say "love" in its purest sense, because it’s not quite familial love, but it’s not quite romantic love as well. The relationship between the two kids is unique and full of life. If Sosuke is a bit disturbed by Ponyo’s fish roots, or her tendency to look like a chicken when she’s drawing upon her magical powers, he doesn’t let on at all. Conversely, Ponyo’s love is pure dedication as she literally transforms from a fish into a human and travels across the oceans to get back to Sosuke. The love story is cute, sweet and free from all the typical angsty drama.

Unfortunately, there’s also a more supernatural and dramatic element to the story which is woefully underdeveloped. There’s no backstory to why Ponyo’s father cast aside his humanity to retreat to the seas. There’s also no backstory on what Ponyo’s mother is and what she does. But more egregiously, we’re told at the end that Sosuke’s true love for Ponyo saved the world from annihilation. Why or what that annihilation was is a complete mystery. I think it had to do with the moon getting too close to Earth, but I have no clue, and it’s a curious missing piece from the story.

The Animation:

It’s beautiful. Stunningly beautiful. Maybe not as steampunk detailed like Howl’s Moving Castle, or as bizarre and otherworldly as Spirited Away, but the attention to detail is amazing. You’ll notice an interesting detail, or a flourish of movement in every scene. It’s mind-boggling to me that all this was done without CGI. The character designs are interesting, but typical Miyazaki. But I did like Ponyo in goldfish form actually. She was just so adorably cute.

The Sound:

If the story was somewhat lacking, the animation and sound more than make up for it. The opening sequence reminded me of Fantasia, with the orchestral background and the myriad of sea creatures on screen. From there, it’s just orchestral bliss throughout. It feels like there’s never a moment where there’s not at least a woodwind or a violin playing quietly in the background. You definitely notice it every step of the way, but not because it’s distracting, but because of how good it sounds, and how it always seems to complement the mood so fittingly. I didn’t recognize any of the voice actors, but the VA work is solid, and I especially liked Ponyo’s seiyuu, especially when she’s saying "I want ham!"

The Characters:

Ponyo is a movie for kids, so there’s not a whole lot of character development. Ponyo is a headstrong, high-energy, heart on her sleeve goldfish. Sosuke is the naive but bright-eyed and good natured kid. Risa is the strong backbone of her family and community. While Ponyo’s parents balance out the eccentricity scale. They are what they are, and they don’t change too much during the movie. But the chemistry between all the characters feels so natural, that the characters don’t feel like cardboard cutouts, and instead everything feels natural – even when you’re literally a fish out of water.

Final Thoughts:

It’s not really fair to compare Ponyo to the movies I mentioned above, because they’re intended for different audiences. Ponyo is a much more straightforward, "what you see is what you get" story. And like I mentioned, even some of the deeper stuff under the surface isn’t developed enough to bother thinking too deeply about. But if you level-set your expectations and you watch it for what it is – a kids story about love – I think it’d be hard to deny the feel-good, cuteness of the movie.

I gave Ponyo an 8 on MAL, but on a 100 point scale, I’d probably bump it a couple points higher to about an 82.

5 Replies to “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – A review!?”

  1. I actually had no idea Studio Ghibli made a new film til I saw the trailer for this on TV like two weeks ago, haha. Still haven’t seen it, though, but even from the trailer/clips, I’m pretty hyped to go out and see it. Your review cements it, so thanks.

    Plus, I’ve only been watching Crime Dramas, Medical Dramas, and NatGeo/History lately.
    It’ll be good to see a nice, laid back movie. And this sure looks to fit the bill! Who says you have to outgrow stuff like this? 😛

  2. Hi,
    I know this is very late, but I’ve only just watched Ponyo recently and I absolutely loved it.
    I wanted to share my thoughts on the story line.
    My grasp of Ponyo’s parents is that her father fell in love with the sea (Ponyo’s mother)
    and decided he wanted to live there and become a life giver of the sea.
    But because of man’s destruction and tipping garbage into the sea and basically destroying nature, he decided to brew a potion which would destroy human kind, restore nature’s balance and finally release the sea from man’s control. This would take a long time, he has to fill a whole well with the stuff.
    When Ponyo unexpectedly finds her way into this chamber of mankind-destroying potion, she released it’s power and gained some extra power herself which she controls inadvertently through her raw emotions/thoughts. for example when she’s happy and excited, the sea’s waves are ‘excited’ – I assume this was her father’s intention as he was angry and the sea would therefore be angry.
    That was my interpretation of it anyway 🙂

    I think there maybe some sort of Japanese legend or other form of background knowledge needed to understand some of the stuff that goes on in Ghibli films, they don’t explain everything which means us who aren’t learned in the way of Japanese cultural history don’t understand all things. Possibly. Maybe?
    Anyway – amazing film and I can’t wait to watch it again ^_^

    1. Good stuff. I thought Ponyo was a simpler story than the others Miyazaki has done recently, but even in this seemingly “kid’s story” there’s still quite a bit of depth you can think about.

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