Fairy tales have been around for a long, long time, serving as one of the world’s repositories of cultural mores, morals, ethics and fears. Taken at face value, the old stories describe a much scarier world, in which one was likely to be abandoned, raped, eaten or worse. Little Red Riding Hood was originally consumed without rescue, and Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their own feet to fit into the glass slippers. The list of gruesome folk-tale motifs is infamously long. Though it may be a function of mass denial, we modern folk like to shine up those old stories and give them the happy endings we think they deserve.
“Ponyo” is an updated telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Director/writer/animator Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke”) doesn’t go full Disney, where everything is super-great-awww-gee-whiz, but his retelling is much nicer than the original story.
Rather than the classic mermaid, the title character is Ponyo (voiced, in the U.S. version, by Noah Lindsey Cyrus, sister of Miley Cyrus), a sort of goldfish with a human-like face. Her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) is some kind of wizard who lives in the ocean. Fujimoto hates humans and their pollution, and is working on a plan to put a stop to it.
Ponyo is kept in a bubble with a school of other people-faced fish in her father’s ocean-floor house, but she wants to see the world outside. One day she breaks out. Through an accident, Ponyo winds up trapped in a bottle among the rocks, where she’s found by Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, the Jonas brother not in the Jonas Brothers), a 5-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Lisa (Tina Fey). Sosuke breaks Ponyo out of the bottle and takes her up the hill, where he revives her. He carries Ponyo around with him, learning that the little sea creature has the power to heal cuts, spit water at mean people and speak.
The pair declares their mutual affection for each other just before Fujimoto pops out of the ocean and steals back his daughter.
Back beneath the sea, Fujimoto finds Ponyo’s not the same. Having tasted human food and licked some of Sosuke’s blood (to heal cuts), she now has the power to grow creepy three-fingered chicken feet and hands. Fujimoto frantically suppresses her power to become more human. Apparently, if he lets Ponyo have her way it will throw off the entire balance between the ocean and the rest of the planet.
With the help of her fishy sisters, Ponyo again breaks out of her bubble. She accidentally comes in contact with Fujimoto’s “elixirs,” which seem to possess the power of creation itself. Ponyo heads out looking for Sosuke, running on top of waves shaped like enormous fish. Her journey does indeed upset the balance between water and land, and the ocean levels rise, leaving most of Sosuke’s island underwater. Ponyo’s mother (Cate Blanchett), who is a sort of ocean goddess, gets involved, and she and Fujimoto formulate a test that would allow Ponyo to become a human for good.
“Ponyo” dispenses with Andersen’s signature dour, Victorian Protestant hopelessness, which infused the original “Little Mermaid,” and the animation is divorced from the Disney version by its lack of calypso music and seashell bras, among other things. If “Ponyo” carries any message, it’s the “don’t dump stuff in the ocean” environmental angle one might expect, though it’s mild enough that it doesn’t distract from the general action. In fact, Miyazaki more or less ignores the sort of proselytizing typical of fairy tales in general. The implied message seems to be that defeatism is the only real danger, and that renewal — both of the physical realm and of the spirit — is always possible, maybe even inevitable.
As usual, Miyazaki’s animation is visually stunning, particularly the sequences when Ponyo is looking for Sosuke and those including her goddess mother. He creates a slightly stylized ocean that infuses every scene and dictates their moods, acting as a character in its own right. The profusion of fish, eels, jellyfish, crabs and every other type of sea life you can think of is amazing, with each piece perfectly rendered and synchronized across the screen.
“Ponyo” is another great example of what Miyazaki does best: creating a sense of adventure for children while reminding adults what it felt like to be a child. At 100 minutes, it’s short enough for most kids to make it through, but long and gorgeous enough to satisfy their grown-up keepers.