I've watched enough Hayao Miyazaki films over the years to finally piece together what they have in common. For one, all Miyazaki films are deceitfully childlike. They're "kids movies," yes, but only in the sense that children can enjoy them just as much as adults. Otherwise they are far too complex to fall into the generic Disney category, and even though I love Disney movies as much as the next person, there is a psychological complexity to Miyazaki that Disney can never reach. Even though Miyazaki's latest, Ponyo, is an alleged "Disney" film.
Ponyo is, at its simplest, a story about a magic goldfish who wants to turn into a human. The goldfish accidentally meets a young boy named Sosuke, and when the goldfish-- now named Ponyo-- is retrieved by her father, hell breaks loose, and Ponyo now has an insatiable desire to become human. Nature's delicate balance is upturned, and a storm threatens Sosuke's quaint seaside village. On top of this is a backstory of "evil" witches and wizards, a small oceanside community in Japan, a family, and even the role humans play in the environment. Which brings me to my second point: all Miyazaki films have an environmentalist undercurrent (my favorite-- Princess Mononoke-- does this more than any other). Miyazaki films praise the wilderness, the beauty of evolution, the spirit of animals, and declaim traits that are often thought of as "human"-- greed, corruption, love of money, egotism. It's almost transcendental, almost romantic. Think of the moment in Spirited Away when the temple workers throw themselves onto the floor in want of gold. It is hard not to look at this without disgust.
Although greed and corruption are seen as terrible forces, Miyazaki still seems to believe that humans-- all humans, even what is seemingly the lowliest creatures-- are good at heart, and capable of being understood. It is the want of understanding that is at the core of "evil" characters' desires. In Ponyo, it is unclear how "evil" Ponyo the Fish's father is, although he is referred to as an "evil wizard". Just as The Little Mermaid is about a mermaid who goes against her father's wishes in the quest of becoming human, Ponyo is a goldfish who goes against her father's human-hating ways. In that sense, Ponyo is another Little Mermaid story... but humanized. Unlike all other Disney films that I've seen, Ponyo has no evil villain, because every thing on earth-- human, animal, or any hybrid in-between-- is endowed with an inherent goodness. It's refreshing, powerful, and overwhelming. Give me Hayao Miyazaki over Walt Disney any day.
The film itself is, though not the best of Miyazaki's extensive repertoire, delightful. The animation is beautiful, as always, and this time, nothing was lost in translation (Disney did the annoying dirty work of the translator). Like all Miyazaki films, even the older audience members are often lost in the almost surrealistic quality of the story-- where is reality? Where is fiction? Where does magic meet our perceived world? Herein is the Miyazaki charm, in that same magic realism that suspends our disbelief, if only for a few hours. Something so strange, enlightening, and wonderful is rarely found, so go see it! Posthaste!