Another fever dream of a children’s movie from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo is something like Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid – if Nemo and Ariel had gotten together to ingest some new variety of aquatic shrooms.
Bursts of bizarre visual splendor have always been a trademark of Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke), and Ponyo opens with a doozy: a thin, well-dressed man with wild hair and blue mascara stands on the outer gangplank of an underwater submarine, encased in some sort of magical air bubble. All manner of outlandish sea life – some recognizable, some unfamiliar – swirl about him.
This strange figure is the father of the title character, never mind that Ponyo herself is a goldfish. In that opening scene, Ponyo sneaks away from her father, winds up near the shore and eventually befriends a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke. Their ensuing adventures include Ponyo’s gradual transformation into a human girl and a tsunami made not of waves but fish.
For all of its fantasy, Ponyo is also grounded in real-world concerns, such as the bond between a child and their pet (my kids talk to our betta fish as if it was a person). Ponyo is at its best when melding its fantasy and our reality in wonderful ways. Ponyo’s father can command the ocean, and there are a handful of times when dark, burbling waves rise from the deep, complete with eyes, and roll menacingly toward Sosuke. When kids at the beach flee from the tide in mock terror, I wonder if this is what they see.