Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated epic, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” unfolds with a magic limpidity, teeming with imaginative transports that owe nothing to CGI. Effortlessly shuttling between sea, land and sky, this “Little Mermaid”-ish tale dives deep into the collective unconscious of Japan’s island culture, imagining a transparency between natural elements that promises salvation and apocalypse in equal measure. Though targeted at tots, “Ponyo” may appeal most to jaded adults thirsty for wondrous beauty and unpackaged innocence. Pic is the first local production since Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) to pass ¥10 billion ($93.2 million) at home.
Widely perceived as a positive manifestation of the “second childhood” of its 67-year-old visionary director, pic marks a stylistic U-turn from the rendered literalism of the fantasy components in “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Pic frequently partakes of simpler, sparer setups, and more distilled, abstract compositions, with foreshortened perspectives and whimsically freewheeling character designs that imply the direct influence of children’s drawing.
Miyazaki’s underwater specimens decidedly defy scientific categorization. Perky Ponyo (voiced by Yuria Nara), a fish with a little face and red dress, lives beneath the sea with her red-haired, ecologically anxious father and hundreds of much tinier, red-dressed sisters. Curious about the surface world, she hitches a ride atop one of many floating jellyfish (using a smaller, more diaphanous jellyfish as a windshield dome).
Swept up by a dredging net, along with the detritus of civilization (everything from bathtubs to oil sludge), Ponyo is rescued by 5-year-old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi), who resides on a cliff above the ocean and promises to protect her always.
Eventually, Ponyo’s sorcerer father manages to recapture his wayward offspring. But Ponyo, both a willful child and an ungovernable force of nature, soon escapes again, in the process upsetting the Earth’s ecological balance.
Accidentally unleashing her father’s magic elixir, Ponyo triggers a tour de force orchestration of swirling elements that transform her wee helpful little sisters into huge fish that overrun the sea in a vast tsunami. Ponyo triumphantly rises atop the mounting waves to near-Wagnerian strains, oblivious to the total devastation she has wrought.
If Sosuke serves as the template for the perfect child (with his boat-captain father often away and his dashingly imagined daredevil mother given to impulse, he assumes responsibility for everyone), Ponyo is definitely a handful. Miyazaki has crafted no demure little mermaid, and no soft dissolves accompany her awkward transitions to human form: The legs she first sprouts are chicken-like appendages, and her occasional headlong dives involve swift regressions to amoeba-like formlessness.
Miyazaki has inadvertently dished up yet another challenge to the universe of hand-drawn toons: Even more so than his previous outings, the film confounds traditional notions of anthropomorphism, dwelling especially on the transformative properties of water.
Far more upbeat than much of Miyazaki’s oeuvre, limned in bright pastel colors where even destruction is golden, “Ponyo” possesses an almost demonic childish energy and a delight in form stronger than reason or narrative. Even Armageddon, as loosed by Ponyo and imagined by Miyazaki, is a wondrous place where half-armored prehistoric fish glide alongside their more evolved cousins, submerged trees form mysterious swamplands and a “ship graveyard” of foundering vessels appears in the distance, like a fairyland of lights stretched out upon the water.
Disney will release the film Aug. 14 in an English-dubbed version under the title “Ponyo.”