Hayao Miyazaki has an unmistakable vision when it comes to making movies. Unlike anything else in the realm of animated film -- including the fantastically innovative examples from Pixar -- his films are crazy, visceral, epic fairy tales about the burden of growing up and taking responsibility for your world. Some of his more complex works tackle even bigger themes, about humanity's ambivalence between beauty and destruction (especially in works like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). But Miyazaki has also shown an aptitude for telling a different kind of story: tales that manifest in sweet, delightful, nearly conflict-free fables centering on small children, and usually cinematically narrated with the purity of a child's perception. He's hinted at this in many of his past efforts, but he hasn't constructed an entire movie this way since 1988's My Neighbor Totoro. That is, until 2009's Ponyo.
A new, very different take on the premise of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is about a precocious little fish named Brünnhilde, whose father just happens to be the flamboyant and sinewy king of the sea. Determined to reach the surface and explore new places, the aquatic princess makes a break for it, and happens to meet a five-year-old boy named Sosuke, who lives in a house overlooking the ocean in a tiny fishing village with his mother, Lisa, and his father, a fisherman who is often away. After rescuing his tiny friend from being stuck inside a discarded glass jar, Sosuke makes a strange, instant connection with the little goldfish, whom he names Ponyo. Ponyo's oddly human face soon shows that she loves her new best friend as well, but of course, her father cannot allow a magical princess fish to straddle the worlds of sea and land -- it upsets the mystical balance of the world, and begins to interfere with the tides and the moon. But the innocent love between Ponyo and Sosuke is too profound to restrain her, and she wills herself to transform into human form, first springing funny little feet that make her look like a chicken, and soon changing all the way into an adorable five-year-old girl, with hair the same red color that her iridescent scales used to be.
A splendid, gentle adventure follows, as Ponyo's mother, a huge, ethereal sea goddess, weighs in on the issue to state that if the pure love of the two children is as strong as it seems, then Ponyo can be permanently granted a human form, thus restoring the earth's balance. The adorable children thenceforth engage in extremely brave, always cute antics, as they face the floods wrought by the sea storm that brought Ponyo to land in the first place. All along the way in this delightful fable, Miyazaki shows his incredible aptitude for understanding how children talk, move, and most importantly, think. That he's able to so deftly narrate in child-mind is so touching, it would almost be poignant -- if it weren't so resiliently uplifting and sweet. The movie also shows the usual Miyazaki brand of worldly divination. Everything in the story's environment shows the magical spark of life; even the ocean's waves are capable of opening a squinty eye to reveal their intent. For American audiences -- even those that aren't familiar with Miyazaki's style -- it's a movie with all the heart of Pixar's best and a giant dose of its own unique, rapturous charm, making it timeless enough for children and grown-ups alike.