It seems that as far as Americans are concerned, the leading contender in animation is Pixar. Having produced instant classics like Wall-E, Toy Story, and Finding Nemo, it's a rightful assessment. However, across the seas is a man named Hayao Miyazaki who the rest of the world considers the master of animation. With excellent films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away under his belt, he has finally delivered his masterpiece, Ponyo, a tour de force of imagination and wonderment that rivals anything Pixar has ever done and easily earns a spot on my best of the year list.
The story centers around Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus), a fish who lives in the ocean with her father, a sorcerer named Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson). She is a curious fish and wants to see more of the world, essentially running away from her father, but due to the pollution in the water, she finds herself stuck in a glass jar washed up on a nearby shore. Lucky for her, an adventurous five year old boy named Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas) finds her and breaks the glass open, fearful that she may be dead. He cuts himself in the process and Ponyo licks the blood off of his finger, revitalizing herself. The blood begins to morph her into a little girl and she spouts arms and legs. She eventually makes a strong connection with the boy, but Fujimoto is determined to get her back, despite her desire to stay with Sosuke.
Ponyo is like a coloring book come to beautiful life, exquisite in its detail, yet humble in its vision. Unlike some animated movies, it isn't self-absorbed, with its animation working more for the purpose of telling the story rather than screaming, "Look what we can do!" at every turn. It's unique from what we normally see in movies, sublimely blending magnificently detailed hand-drawn animation with a still environment, akin to something like a painting. With the CGI spectacles we've become accustomed to, Ponyo creates a distinct style all its own.
There are many moments of epic grandeur in Ponyo, with feasts for the eyes and excitement for the soul, including a mind-blowing chase through the streets where Ponyo, running along the top of a school of fish, races after Sosuke and his mother in their car as tsunami waves crash down all around them. With a muttered "Wow," I was swept away in the film, with my spirits soaring high all the way until the credits began to roll.
Despite its obvious fictitious story, there's a wonderful humanity to Ponyo that keeps it grounded in reality. In the film, the moon has fallen out of its orbit and is getting closer to Earth because of a magical elixir that Ponyo has absorbed. The only thing that can save the world from an inevitable collision is if Sosuke and Ponyo can pass a test of true love, which would make Ponyo permanently human and restore the moon back to its proper course. It's an uncommonly touching story that's refreshingly poignant and deserves to be seen.
There is also some terrific humor, not laugh out loud funny, but jocular in a childlike way, where you see yourself in little Ponyo, running around discovering new things, endlessly fascinated by seemingly insignificant finds. Her and Sosuke are two of the most likable and adorable characters to grace the screen all year and their boundless charm and puerile sensibilities will happily tap into the inner child of any adult who is lucky enough to witness this phenomenal film.
Ponyo receives 5/5