Ponyo Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

[Walt Disney Pictures; 2009]

With the majority of animated cinema exploring new technologies and postmodern territory, mastermind Hayao Miyazaki has returned to his roots with another classically hand-drawn, two-dimensional opus, delivering his most innocent, simplistic, and wholesome effort since perhaps My Neighbor Totoro from two decades past. But this by no means implies that Ponyo is shallow or even banal. As has been the case in virtually all of Miyazaki's works, it's a richly detailed, astonishingly imaginative film that imposes its fantastical consciousness on even the most leaden of imaginations.

Take the opening sequence, for example. Essentially a tour of a prospective villain's underwater lair, we're spared the usual cackling imp histrionics or montage-o'-doom-impending sequence. Instead, we're treated with a sublime, awe-inspiring celebration of Ponyo's kaleidoscopic wonderland: a polychromatic, pastel-colored seascape packed with an array of wondrous sights and whimsical creatures. Set to Joe Hisaishi's blaring overture, it's cinema at its most powerfully reductive, with sight and sound working in harmony to activate our primitive cinematic circuits and send them soaring into hyperdrive.

Just as we've caught our breath, we're forced to watch Ponyo, the adorable titular fish creature, lose her own, when she becomes trapped in a glass jar that eventually washes ashore. Luckily, she is freed by a young boy named Sosuke, who discovers her at his cliffside home and quickly makes her his new pet goldfish. Ponyo magically gains the ability to morph between fish and human after licking Sosuke's blood, strengthening their friendship but accidentally triggering a tsunami by breaking the divide between land and sea.

What follows is firmly rooted in the storytelling tradition of Studio Ghibli (the animation studio that releases Miyazaki's works in Japan), which has a tendency to eschew the precise A-to-B logic we're accustomed to in the Western fairytale narrative model. It's also rooted in Miyazaki's own environmental concerns; even the film's designated villain, Fujimoto, is chiefly motivated by the wasteful disregard of human beings. But thankfully, the importance of an organic, integrated environmental life cycle is supported here not by a character's ham-handed declaration, but by the very nature of Miyazaki's own untethered blanket universe.

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