Possibly the quaintest adaptation of The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Anderson's grim and grisly fable about the failed romance of a mermaid who falls in desperate love with a surface dweller, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (shortened to just Ponyo for American audiences) is as different, imaginative and distilled an alteration as Walt Disney's animated feature.
In it, Arial, the rebellious, red-haired little mermaid sings and dances on the ocean floor while pining to be “a part of your world”, in the Oscar-winning score (and one song) by Alan Menken. The same red hair and rebellious nature sustains itself in Ponyo directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a director whose career is nothing but brilliance.
Miyazaki's take on Ponyo is as delicate as its free-flowing feel. The events planned around the 100-minute feature interlink themselves in a seamless and a bit episodic narrative. He has a conspicuous predisposition to fashion contemporary fairy tales, and regardless of the association with the Hans Christian Anderson tale (or the Disney movie), Ponyo has little, if any, dourness of the original story.
Ponyo is a tadpole-like daughter of Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), a mysterious undersea wizard with flowing, tendril-like hair, Ziggy Stardust make-up and horrendous bold blue-striped suit and purple overcoat, who helps restore the purity of the ocean world. Fujimoto with his inventions lives in a house domed in an air-bubble in a deep coral reef, and wishes for the fall of man. Yet for all his hatred, there is little actual hate in Fujimoto's conduct.
Ponyo accompanying Fujimoto and her hundreds of smaller fish-like siblings (don't ask me about their genetic make up, only Miyazaki has that answer) runs away to see the wonders of the surface world, and ends up with SÃ´suke, a five-year-old boy who lives on a quaint house on the cliff of a sea-board town with his mother and his naval officer father (voiced by Tina Fey and Matt Damon).The relationship between Ponyo and SÃ´suke, emanates of romance from their first scene together, when he picks her up from the ocean in his green pail. Like every Hayao Miyazaki film (and every classic Disney movie), every character has a trenchant personality matched to their age group — a five-year-old behaves his age and a 70-year-old behaves grouchy and infantile.
Ponyo, who until SÃ´suke names her so, was called BrÃ¼nnhilde (a fabled Valkyrie from Norse legends) by Fujimoto, has a flair for magic very much like her mother. The mother, Gran Mamare (voiced by Cate Blanchett) is a numinous ocean goddess of mercy, whose form swimming beneath the sea or rising from the waves is giant and magnificent, like her omniscient fairy-like personality.
Lisa, SÃ´suke's mother with a pal-like attitude (who for the first 10 minutes I thought was an older sister), is a toughie whose husband Koichi gets little time for shore leave. SÃ´suke is a willed five-year-old boy with his sense of the fantastic as keen and unquestioning as anybody his age. And unlike Ponyo, his manners are in place.
Ponyo, teeming with childlike tendencies of wonderment, infectious pigheadedness, intolerance and being giddy without any reason, shares one of Miyazaki's recent attributes of magic. Like Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle, the proximity of a loved one (SÃ´suke in this case) changes Ponyo's outer appearance from a tadpole-like creature into a human girl. While Sophie's change from a 80-year-old granny into a 20-something maiden were clearly defined to highlight the romantic element of Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo's transformation is played passively in small snippets. But Ponyo's physicality does change slightly whenever she does magic. Her eyes pop-out, her hands and feet deform into chicken-like-legs, but just for a brief moment.
The magic doesn't stop there. One scene, at once captivating and heart-pounding scary, happens after Ponyo escapes from her father's domain and unbalances the world looking for SÃ´suke. Bursting out of the water, Ponyo runs atop a giant cresting wave after another that blends in and out of shape of big featureless Salmon-like fish. The magnitude of the disaster to the small coastline town is irrelevant to a frivolous child infected with the purpose of finding her friend.
There are few film-makers who can sustain the self-indulgent qualities of children without indulging in disastrous film-making clichÃ©, and at the same time make grand, modern-day fairy tales. Miyazaki is one. The other I have to think about. Unlike the original Little Mermaid, there are no sad endings in Ponyo.
Rated G, Ponyo stays away from computer generated imagery. Everything is hand-drawn and the palette is intelligibly clear, the strokes of water colour distinctly visible in the backgrounds. Expect an Oscar nomination come February.