Set page style to Deep Space Set page style to Venusian Set page style to Hull Grey
Capt. Sage's Review of
Ponyo on a Cliff

Ponyo on a Cliff is a film which I took delight in.The movie feels very, very alive, because of wonderful animation, high sound quality, a good cast, and an intriguing plot which uses ambiguity to its enhancement, although this is sometimes also to its detriment. Still, it is a rare movie aimed at children, with non-formulaic plot, a high quality production, a sense of wonder, and masterful pacing which leaves it without slow spots.

The technical aspects of the movie were astounding. In some movies, the sea often appears dead or sparsely populated, but this film regularly showed us entire shoals of fish and multitudes of jellyfish and many other forms of sea life. The animators also portrayed small details of the characters' motions with incredible fidelity, from the protagonist, the little boy Sosuke, skipping over rocks as he walks down a steep cliff, to a young girl swaying energetically as she stands still for a brief moment. The sound quality was also excellent, using echoes and rushing water to great effect.

I enjoyed the work that the cast did for this movie. The voices were well-matched to the characters, and their timing was excellent. Sosuke, played by Frankie Jonas, carried us through the movie with an intelligent voice, but one that didn't seem out of place on a five-year old. Ponyo's voice, Noah Cyrus, was amusingly stubborn and elated, and her voice when sleepy was perfect. Liam Neeson's portrayal of Ponyo's father was well-balanced, creating a complex character in what, objectively, was very few lines.

The plot went very well, flowing smoothly without any slow parts, and several times kept things ambiguous to good effect. For example, the beginning of the movie was somewhat ambiguous, but it was comprehensible while leaving some things to be revealed later. Similarly, one of the scenes in the climax was also ambiguous, which added to dramatic tension. On the other hand, just what the conflict was sometimes felt a bit ambiguous, and that took away some dramatic tension. Still, the characters and the events unfolding around them were quite enough to keep my attention.

This is one of the few children's movies that really kept me genuinely interested. Although it contained some fairy-tale staples, it didn't feel formulaic or cliched. The quality of all its elements was at a high standard, which is sadly rare for many movies whose audiences consist mainly of children. I'd be enthusiastic about going to see it again.

SPOILERS

The beginning of the movie was very heavy-handedly berating humans for polluting. I was glad that didn't last very long.

I particularly liked the attitude of Lisa, Sosuke's mother, towards the children - that they were special and could be helpful and responsible, and it was particularly encouraging to see the children living up to that attitude.

One of the best parts of the movie was in the second half, as the world we had come to understand and know through Sosuke and Lisa's eyes, a world not unlike our own, was now seen in a totally new light, as most of it was underwater and populated by big and small aquatic creatures, some of whom are currently rare or extinct.

I think that overall the movie would probably have had a stronger second half if they had kept us in suspense about where Lisa and the seniors were rather longer, because I was starting to wonder what could've happened to them myself. Someone suggested to me that we could've learned what happened to them at the same time that Sosuke and Ponyo did. I think that would've worked well - and then they could've fit in the scenes of the seniors running and leaping, and Lisa and Ponyo's mother talking. This also would've made the confrontation between Toki and Ponyo's father more dramatic, because it would've emphasized a question I was wondering about - could we trust Ponyo's father? As the movie was, it was fairly clear that we could. However, if it wasn't clear that we could, that part would've been less certain and more dramatic.

Still, the movie arguably didn't need all that drama. It somehow maintained a relaxed pace while keeping things happening all the time, so it's one of the few movies I can think of without a true slow part. That took a masterful touch.

I think people who know Studio Ghibli for films like "Princess Mononoke", with graphic violence in a feudal era, or even "Castle in the Sky", a movie for a slightly older audience than Ponyo which still had combat in it, might be surprised to see that they made this film. On the other hand, it is squarely in the Studio Ghibli's tradition with "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service," in which young protagonists face conflicts mostly against themselves and others. I regard it as an indication of the talent and effort that Studio Ghibli pours into both styles of movies, that they create such interesting and creative works in both styles. It must truly take effort to invest so heavily in two rather different styles of story.