Ponyo: My New Favorite Fish Girl

by Amy Kraft on August 15, 2009

Olive and I couldn’t wait to see Ponyo, and jumped at our chance this afternoon. We’re big fans of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, and with Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki delivers once again. This was my first time seeing a Miyazaki film on the big screen, and it was a treat – truly stunning. 

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Ponyo is Miyazaki’s take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and it really couldn’t be more different from the Disney version. Sosuke is a 5-year-old boy who lives with his mom in a coastal town and whose dad is off at sea as a boat captain. While hanging out near the ocean, he discovers a fish trapped in a jar, names her Ponyo, and carries her around in a bucket as the two get to know each other. 

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Ponyo, of course, is no ordinary fish. She’s the daughter of a gigantic sea goddess and a David Bowie-style wizard. She’s really quite magical and quickly develops her powers, willing herself to turn into a girl to be with Sosuke. 

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After my Pixar rant, it was so good to see that Ponyo is as girl power as I hoped it would be, without alienating boys. It starts off with our little male protagonist living in a women-filled world. With his dad out to sea, he spends time with his nutty but endearing mom, doing the best she can while essentially being a single mom (it doesn’t hurt the girl power factor that she’s voice by Tina Fey). Sosuke has clearly formed a loving relationship with the little old ladies at the senior center where his mom works (again, voiced by powerhouses: Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman). 

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And then there’s Ponyo and her world. Clearly she has a powerful mother. But the real power is with Ponyo’s own determination to develop her own magic. She seems to soak life in, and that’s enhanced by her relationship with Sosuke, who is constantly in awe of her. Miyazaki is wonderful at creating powerful and fearless girl characters.  

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Miyazaki is also the master of creating suspense and heightened moments that are scary, but not so scary that we have to leave the theater and miss the rest of the movie. His children are so powerful that I think kids in the audience can feel empowered. 

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On that note, this movie felt decidedly not-American for how much power and freedom the children had. Sosuke (again, a 5-year-old) is allowed to wander down by the ocean by himself, he comes and goes between his school and the senior center, and after a typhoon hits and his mom goes to help the seniors, he’s left in charge. Sosuke and Ponyo navigate a boat that’s run by using the heat of a candle and Sosuke has to use (gasp!) matches. And all of this is not to mention this is a love story about two little kids. I was so happy to see that the kids in the audience can still have this rich fantasy life on screen without the PC and safety police stripping it of its magic. 

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