Dir-scr: Hayao Miyazaki. Jap. 2008. 101mins

Visually, it’s extraordinary; imaginatively, it’s daring. Once again Hayao Miyasaki is playing in a league of his own with Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea, a sweet, gentle, moving, and always delightful Japanese take on the classic Little Mermaid fable. Commercially, it has the power to achieve everything Miyazaki’s last feature Howl’s Moving Castle garnered in 2004 (it is already matching those figures in Japan) and should play to exactly the same international demographic as Spirited Away.

Bowing internationally in Competition at Venice, Ponyo plays out as exuberant blast of colour, making all else around it seem gray, so brightly does it shine. The opening sequences feel like a trip through the type of rainbow paintings you might see in a kindergarten, so keenly does Miyazaki capture the spirit of his five-year-old protagonist, Sosuke (Hiroki Doi).

But Ponyo is firing on all cylinders on every level. From the sheer creativity of its traditional cel animation to its characterisations (every adult here feels real); the interactions between old and young; the untrammelled imagination on display throughout the story; and, above all, the way Miyazaki still dares to be different. On the downside, 101 minutes is a tad too long for an animated feature and the film does suffer some third-act doldrums (a boat trip undertaken by the child heroes seems particularly unfocused). The often-subversive Ponyo is also obviously a harder sell for children outside its home audience (a loving mother who cracks open a beer when stressed, and speeds in her car while reminding her five-year-old in the front seat to wear a seatbelt as she places him repeatedly in danger, is much more exciting than your average animated screen mom, however).

In this highly-creative take on Hans Christian Anderson’s fable, Ponyo (Yuria Nara) is a unique little fish who escapes from her sorcerer father’s underwater home and is found by Sosuke, who lives on the top of a cliff in a small seaside village. Sosuke’s father, Koichi (Kazushige Nagashima) is the captain of a freighter and spends most of his life at sea; his mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi) works at a day care centre for the elderly, and Sosuke attends its school.

Ponyo’s love for Sosuke makes her want to become human, but her desires carry all sorts of risks, especially for the residents of Sosuke’s town, young and old alike. Ultimately, her mother, the Queen of the Sea, will have to intervene and little Sosuke will have to prove his mettle if Ponyo is to live happily ever after.

Although it’s a simple enough story, Miyazaki layers Ponyo more than enough to keep adult viewers satisfied (outside Asian markets, adults will probably be the majority audience). From the topic of ageing to the environment, innocence versus experience and the interesting experiment of making the sea itself a major character, Ponyo is a highly-memorable artistic achievement from a master who shows absolutely no signs of flagging.

Production companies
Studio Ghibli
Nippon Television Network
Hakuhodo DYMP
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

International sales
Wild Bunch
(33) 1 53 01 50 30

Toshio Suzuki

Joe Hisaishi

Supervising animator
Katsuya Kondo

Colour design
Michiyo Yasuda

Main voice cast
Tomoko Yamaguchi
Kazushige Nagashima
Yuki Amami
George Tokoro
Yuria Nara
Hiroki Doi