Tomoko hated this. Afterwards she was ranting about it, saying she's never going to watch another Ghibli or Miyazaki film. Personally, I liked it.
What's surprising about it is that it's not a Miyazaki epic. It's not even beautiful. It looks surprisingly cheap, the story's simple-minded and it feels like a children's anime. Personally I really liked that. Miyazaki's recent films had begun to feel a bit samey... magnificent achievements and practically their own genre, yes, but lacking narrative drive and perhaps the kind of film you feel you have to watch a couple of times to get into. They're not particularly for children, although of course children are capable of watching them.
Ponyo on the other hand is completely different. It could go alongside My Neighbour Totoro
in the joy they take in childhood. Adults have been luke-warm towards this and it's apparently regarded as one of Miyazaki's weaker films, but with kids it's insanely popular. This makes complete sense to me. What's special about it is the completeness with which it evokes being five years old. These aren't the adults in children's bodies that we're used to in movies. On the contrary, not only the characters but the very structure and design of the movie have been bent around a five-year-old's mentality.
1 - the plot. Ponyo is a magical jellyfish who's helped by a boy called Sosuke. They're both fascinated by each other, so when Ponyo's father comes to take her back, she turns herself human and runs away back to Sosuke. This is a simple plot. It's The Little Mermaid, actually, although its choices are so different from the Disney version's that's it's not really possible to compare them. Ponyo causes trouble with her magic, but fortunately the world will be saved if she and Sosuke really love each other! The end.
2 - the characters. The five-year-olds are exactly right, which is freakishly young for the protagonists of a movie. You don't have much control over yourself at five. Ponyo could be seen as the pre-school equivalent of a Marvel superhero, in that she's got superpowers and fantasy wish-fulfilment magic... but she's capable of turning Japan into an environmental disaster zone in the process and not even realising afterwards. She can hold about half an idea in her head at any one time. Even her physical form can be fluid.
However the adults are not realistic. Instead they're more like a five-year-old's idea of what adults must (or perhaps should) be like. They're all either (a) grannies in a care home, or (b) either Sosuke or Ponyo's parents. They accept weird stuff from five-year-olds without being rational or trying to understand it. Sosuke's mother finds Ponyo in the road and doesn't try to contact this child's mother. Adults will throw tantrums. Ponyo's father is a mad scientist who'd like to eliminate mankind and our polluting civilisation... until the second half of the film, when he's required to be the good guy and so now he's suddenly trying to save mankind after all. None of this is believable, but it makes them refreshing since any other movie would feel obliged to make its adults do the sensible (i.e. annoying) thing and in the process ignore everything our protagonists said or did.
3 - the world. Japan can have a Ponyo-induced natural disaster 1000 times worse than the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011... and it looks fun. It's scenic. There are people in boats. There's no suggestion of, say, a death toll in the millions. Oh, and Sosuke can keep his eyes open without pain in salt water, while furthermore you can keep sea creatures alive by putting them in tapwater.
You could easily trim twenty minutes off this movie. The entire third act feels as if it's been pulled out of Miyazaki's arse, although in fairness his global threat has been better thought through than it looks. (Japan's being submerged because the moon's being pulled towards the Earth and creating mega-tides.) For me, none of that matters. The film's about Sosuke and Ponyo, whose relationship is likeable and funny (the ham!) and for whom the entire world is a reflection of what it's like to be them. Prehistoric fish swim in magical waters. Ponyo has a thousand tiny jellyfish sisters, while her father has water-trolls. Ponyo can reshape herself and the world just by wanting something enough, while magic and science are the same thing and work on voodoo principles. This is a magical film. Miyazaki's sense of wonder hasn't gone away, although he's also grounding himself with things like Sosuke's father working out at sea.
Tomoko hated the acting. I thought it was fine, but she thought the line delivery was flat, just reading the dialogue off the page. Now it has to be said that a native speaker's judgement probably outweighs that of someone with only conversational Japanese, so I listened to some scenes again. It's interesting to compare them with the English dub. You can hear stars like Liam Neeson carefully reproducing the original Japanese cast's flat, offhand delivery. I see what Tomoko means, but on the other hand this is known to be deliberate from Miyazaki. He doesn't like voice actors. He think they overact. He prefers naturalism and so for instance the children in Miyazaki movies will be played by real children. I can understand how Tomoko feels, but for me this method worked okay and occasionally even triumphed. Look at the climactic scene where Sosuke declares his love for Ponyo, for instance. That should have been "claw your eyes out" awful, but the boy's simplicity makes it work startlingly well.
Mind you, the children's dialogue is wrong. Kids these days don't say "shimeta", while one should call one's parents "okaa-san" and "otoo-san". Tomoko didn't realise at first that Sosuke's mother was his mother.
I really liked this film. Many people didn't, but I did. I went in expecting Miyazaki to be stomped into jelly by the magnificence of Disney's The Little Mermaid, but instead he trumped all comparisons and won me over. In certain ways it's arguably better, since you can't read dubious sexual politics into it and Ponyo achieves her goals all by herself, without selling her soul to Ursula the Sea Witch. The protagonists are charming, in their random five-year-old way, and I liked the scene where a baby's mother talks about her boobs. Besides, it's not as if the critics have it all their own way. This film took over 200 million dollars worldwide and won awards including the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. For Miyazaki, I think it's a breath of fresh air.