#1 A Ghibli Apocalypse
On the surface, Ponyo looks like an adorable movie about friendship and cozy adventures at sea, but it doesn’t take long for things to become mildly unsettling. It’s certainly a movie for kids, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that the storyline becomes strangely apocalyptic for a movie that is so wholesome in every other aspect.
The story centers around Ponyo, a little human-faced fish creature that lives with a mysterious man aboard a submarine. One day she manages to slip away and embark on a little adventure, only to wind up trapped in a bottle. 5-year-old Sousuke finds her on the beach near his house and begins taking care of her, but it soon becomes clear that “something” is trying to get Ponyo to come back to the sea.
A tropical storm soon follows their meeting, which rapidly begins to consume Sousuke’s community. Waves cause ships to pile-up by the dozens while entire freighters are pushed into the city through their flooding docks, much of the land floods all the way up to the treeline, and Sousuke’s cliffside house is turned into an island, though even that threatens to be swallowed up. While the movie isn’t dire, it does very much depict issues like radios failing, having to rely on tanks and generators to keep essentials running, and civilians having to be evacuated.
It’s a surprising direction for a movie like this, but one I much enjoyed.
#2 Visual masterpiece
As is to be expected from Studio Ghibli, Ponyo leaves little to be desired when it comes to visuals. This is an especially vibrant anime, where everything is always a colorful as it could reasonably be. Lush fields of grass, the intense ocean, not to mention all the clashing colors found in the city. I was constantly admiring the artwork and making mental notes of what to take screenshots of later.
Also admirable is just how much of it moves. This is a busy anime full of animation, none of which feels like it’s taking shortcuts anywhere. One moment that stood out is when hundreds of little bugs scuttled around on a rock, all taking different paths. It’s such a small thing in a scene that doesn’t even focus on these bugs, but Ponyo makes an effort to get it right. I bet returning viewers will notice a lot of details that went unnoticed their first time through this movie, and I certainly look forward to rewatching it myself.
Also noteworthy are crowds of people, which are all detailed, unique individuals with their own animation and expressions. It set an unreasonably high standard for future movies to try and overcome.
#3 Lovingly bizarre characters
One thing that struck me early in the movie is just how bizarre the main characters are; some of them subtly, while others are much more obvious. Ponyo’s “father” is an immediate stand-out, being this tall, haggard-looking man with make-up, who hauls around all kinds of strange devices and flasks. He’s mysterious and strange, but his design and mannerisms don’t make him seem like a traditional villain. He’s hard to read, which makes his intentions throughout the story an uncertainty.
Ponyo herself is no less weird. A ceaseless ball of energy and affection, whose form shifts around constantly. However, what caught my attention is just how strangely people react to her. In spite of her Human face, everybody just treat Ponyo like some kind of weird fish, even as she starts talking and performing literal magic. There’s this one scene where Ponyo, in her fish form, just steals and eats an entire slice of ham, to which Sousuke and his mother just react with mild bemusement. Nobody questions the mysterious, human-looking, meat-eating “goldfish” at all.
Sousuke and his mother, Lisa, are endearing characters, but it’s their weirder tendencies that really stood out. Lisa was particularly fun at times with her shockingly reckless approach to driving making for some solid comedy.
#4 Soft environmentalist themes
Ghibli has a history of exploring environmentalism in their movies, though this hasn’t always been a success. Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke are great movies, but their subtext is so obvious that it can feel like these anime lecture to you. Pom Poko, meanwhile, is horrendously-prolonged and is so infuriating with its messages that I only barely made it through.
Ponyo is still fairly obvious, but it doesn’t hammer on the point. A lot of the movie takes place in and around water, which comes with no shortage of trash and other pollution. All kinds of garbage floats around underwater or is seen nestled in the seafloor, while beaches are littered with bottles and plastics. Boats tear up the seafloor and endanger marine life while billowing clouds of black smoke into the air. It’s clear what the movie is communicating, so it doesn’t keep hammering on it.
There’s exactly one scene where a character briefly complains about the trash, while at other times it’s just all visual storytelling. And even in spite of the trash, the anime and environments are still painted as beautiful. The world and humanity are flawed… but certainly not doomed.
#5 Adorable adventure story
All of the above is nice, but Ponyo‘s greatest strength is still that it’s a plain good adventure movie; fantastic for children while remaining perfectly enjoyable for adults.
It’s an enchanting film about a boy and a weird, magical creature becoming friends and going on a journey together, besting all kinds of odds and seeing all manner of wonders. They foil the plans of a strange man desperate to keep them apart and they meet all kinds of interesting people along the way. It’s well-written and absolutely adorable all the way through; a near-perfect example of a light-hearted adventure story in anime.