Does anyone else dislike Ponyo?
WARNING: THERE WILL BE PLOT SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE
With the recent news of Studio Ghibli shutting down its film production, I took a look back at all the wonderful movies it had brought us. Hayao Miyazaki's work in particular was absolutely flawless. I can safely say I thoroughly enjoy all of his films except one...and that one is Ponyo.
Hear me out
Now I know there are a lot of fans out there for this movie and don't get me wrong, the movie has its strong points. For one the world that is created here is breathtaking. The small island town is incredibly vibrant and filled with a tight-knit community of likable characters. The visuals in the film are also something to behold but aesthetics aside the story is left wanting. The movie almost feels more like a theme park ride, it dazzles you with looks but lacks the real substance a movie needs. This is due to two fundamental flaws that Ponyo has. The perspective and the lack of conflict.
This issue I have with the film I actually think may have been intentional in its design and that is that the world is seen through the eyes of a 5-year old boy named Sosuke and the film reflects this deeply. Now I'm not saying a movie can't have a young leading character but in Ponyo the world itself is a reflection of how a 5 year old would see it and it doesn't work. You could make the argument that almost everything that happens is the protagonist's imagination running wild. When meeting Ponyo for the first time she was just a fish and you could easily see a young child imagining she had a human face when light is refracted through the water. Or heck, it could even just be Sosuke making up a friend because he was lonely as it would not be unlikely given his current situation. Another example is when the seas were rough and the "fish waves" (pictured below) appeared, I could easily imagine a 5-year old looking into the ocean and seeing the waves as a living creature.
Of course that is a bit of cynical way of looking at it. So even if all the events that take place actually occur, everything is taken incredibly lightly due the innocent eyes of Sosuke. What should be serious, scary events, are looked upon with wonder. When the storm comes, Sosuke is perfectly fine as long as he is with his mom and Ponyo. When the town is flooded, Sosuke and Ponyo just go on an adventure in a toy boat as if nothing serious had happened.
But why is this perspective bad then? Its just quite simply hard to relate to Sosuke. He sees everything so innocently that the idea of danger almost seems foreign to him. I know this is a kid's movie but that shouldn't mean an older audience can't enjoy it. Heck, I'd even argue a 10-year old could not entirely understand Sosuke's thinking.
Even if you disagree with my first point, this one seems hard to refute. This movie has almost no conflict in it whatsoever. This is almost entirely due to my first point and there are plenty of examples as to why.
First lets look at Ponyo's father. He was trying to get Ponyo back so he could return her to the sea. This seems like it would illicit some sort of serious event but it never really does. He proves himself to be entirely incompetent again and again to the point where his actions were more comedic than sinister.
When the storm hits the island you would expect a sense of danger and at first it feels a bit worrisome. However, despite the craziness of Sosuke's mom driving around the island while dodging waves, you never expect anything bad to happen. Since the films comes from Sosuke's perspective, his mom is pretty much a godly character. Every child idolizes their parents, so there is no way his mom could mess up and get in trouble.
When the town is flooded no one cares apparently. Everyone is just out and about in row boats having a grand old time. There is no strife or grief to be seen and everyone just seems to have accepted the situation as if it was normal.
Finally there was the idea that unless Ponyo was returned to the sea, the world would continue to flood. This is supposed to be the major conflict of the film and it could have been but the resolution to it was so simple that calling it a true conflict almost seems silly. All that was needed to fix the whole situation was for Sosuke to answer the questions "Do you love Ponyo?". He says "Yes" and the crisis is averted.
When a film doesn't have any major conflict is it really even a story? All stories need adversity or they are simply boring. Ponyo has nothing going for it in conflict which makes the movie feel like a visually pleasing gallery tour more than anything else.
The only other film by Miyazaki that comes close to Ponyo in its perspective is My Neighbor Totoro. In this film, the leads were two young girls who had just moved into a new house. And although this film also had young children as lead characters, the movie still dealt with serious issues while still retaining childish wonder. For every happy event, there was a serious or sad one. You could also relate to the leading characters in some way no matter what your age. They both had childish feelings but also were forced into recognizing more adult situations with their mother in the hospital.
I don't want to really spoil the plot of Totoro but thinking back on it, the film was a real coming of age story where the creature Totoro bridges the gap between their childhood and coming to terms with their current situation. Ponyo on the other hand lacks deeper meaning and substance in general. Ponyo almost just felt like an experiment on seeing the world through a child's eyes. And although I feel they were successful in that endeavor, it does not make for a good movie.
I love Miyazaki's films and it even made me a bit sad to write this but I was so disappointed with Ponyo that I had to write this eventually. I see so much love for this movie that I'm really curious to see how many people out there actually agree with me. Of course if you disagree please say why down in the comments below. I am genuinely curious as to know why this movie is so well loved.