After the world-dominating Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki decided to go back down the My Neighbor Totoro route and create a work of ultimate cuteness. A film so adorable it's like a kitten made it FOR kittens.
I'm talking, of course, about Ponyo.
This one took me a little by surprise, despite me having no expectations going in except for it being good, which it was. I didn't think it would be geared towards a younger audience but, luckily, Miyazaki's smart enough that people of any age can usually enjoy his work and Ponyo's no exception. The plot is like a weirder version of The Little Mermaid as a goldfish princess somehow makes her way to the shore, befriends a small boy and starts wanting to become human, which she slowly does, through a bizarre process of her looking goofier and goofier then less and less goofy. Ponyo's father Fujimoto, voiced by Liam Neeson, meanwhile, tries desperately to keep the ocean in balance since her departure caused the environment to go haywire and prompt tsunamis. It doesn't help that Ponyo's new little firend Sosuke lives miles away from anywhere and that his mum drives like a maniac down wet, slippery roads. The character design on Ponyo is what visually stands out from this movie the most, as well as the beautiful underwater world we're introduced to. It may not be as three-dimensional as the sea setting in Finding Nemo but it feels like it has just as much depth. It's a chaotic, dense yet stunningly detailed world. The cute factor is mostly related to Ponyo and her fellow goldfish: they all look adorable and Ponyo is naive and energetic as hell, even though she's a blood-drinking weirdo with an unhealthy addiction to ham.
The plot doesn't become all that intricate, the film keeps it straight-forward and simple. Sosuke and his mother, with the help of Ponyo, try to somehow restore balance to the world and save Sosuke's father, who is at sea, and the old people who are staying in a specific part of town which will be affected by the tsunami soon. That's pretty much it. Memorable moments include Ponyo's surreal introduction and escape from the ocean, her random magical powers, a scene in which she's literally running on thousands of giant fish and a somewhat creepy encounter with a really stern baby. Ponyo is quite probably Hayao Miyazaki's most universally accessible movie since Totoro, which isn't a bad thing, it just means that those waiting for another Howl's Moving Castle will probably have to wait several more years, if Miyazaki comes out of retirement again, that is, unless The Wind Rises proves to be both adult-friendly and very memorable. As it stands, I don't think I would want Ponyo to be anything other than what it is: it's exactly what it needs to be and boasts some expectedly fantastic animation from Miyazaki. Plus, it doesn't end quite as abruptly as Totoro does, making it an altogether more completely satisfying film.
Both Ponyo and Totoro are instantly charming and lovely movies to go back to when you feel like watching something not too intense from Studio Ghibli or if you've got kids and you want to keep them fascinated and craving ham for an hour and 20 minutes. It's Miyazaki at his lightest but he's so good at what he does that even adults will find Ponyo pretty irresistible.
Crazily, criminally cute.