It’s impossible to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo without drawing a comparison to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Although Ponyo isn’t beholden to the trappings of Hans Christian Anderson’s story like its predecessor, it’s still ultimately the story of a fish-person who becomes a human and must find true love. But where Disney’s effort rarely felt like more than a product, with its impressive visuals hindered by a coldly calculated plot, Miyazaki’s take is personal and whimsical. There’s an irresistible passion to every frame, regardless of whether or not what’s happening onscreen makes any sort of sense. It’s a comparison where modern day Disney just can’t emerge victorious.
Beyond its inciting incident, Ponyo doesn’t really have much of a plot and certainly no real threats to its characters. Ponyo decides, after meeting a human, that she wants to become one, which for not particularly well-explained reasons sets off a flood. The rest of the film hinges on Ponyo and her young love Sosuke reuniting with his mom. There’s also a number of magical beings trying to help or hinder them along their quick journey (quest would be way too strong a word), but it’s all just trappings for the visuals at that point.
This isn’t the same school of Miyazaki as his more recent and adult works from Princess Mononoke through Howl’s Moving Castle—it’s definitely closest to My Neighbor Totoro in its simplicity. Instead of a complicated story, Ponyo dwells on its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and sophisticated take on children. Even as he ages, Miyazaki’s children remain an accurate portrait of youth without becoming mere nostalgia. Simply put, no one seems to understand the wonders of childhood better.
The unhurried jaunt through a fantastical journey may not seem like compelling cinema, but for all the movie’s plotlessness this never really affects how enjoyable Ponyo is. Miyazaki’s made his dense, important works of cinema with a capital C, but he puts just as much passion into a movie that to anyone else would just be an exercise in exploiting the interests of children. Instead, the film actually lives up to the cliché of making you feel a childlike level of happiness. Sometimes it’s enough to just sit back and let a beautiful work of animation wash over you, letting the troubles of the world slide past as the pictures take you out of this world. Ponyo is just that sort of film.