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Friday Family Movie Night: Ponyo

I had been sold a dozen times over on Hayao Miyazaki's work before Ponyo came out in 2009; a friend was so enthralled with My Neighbor Totoro that she held a special showing at the Clinton Street. But I was skeptical; I'm not generally a fan of kids' movies that anthropormorphize -- especially, I thought, fish. How bizarre was that? A little boy falling in love with a fish?

Besides, everyone said, My Neighbor Totoro was way, way better. So I put it off, skipping it in the theaters (as I usually do), and always turning away from opportunities to see it on the small screen. Finally, one night, nothing else appeared to strike our fancy, so the boys and I tried it On Demand. I was -- to use an eye-rollingly appropriate figure of speech -- swept away.

When it comes down to it, I do love magical realism, and Miyazaki is such a master of the form that I found I was quickly able to set aside my quibbles with the practicality of boy+fish love (especially at such a young age!) and just fall head over heels for the lush-but-dark world he paints. The boys were no less adoring of the characters and style than I. We all stayed rapt through the very end of the movie, the credits, and then we rewound to listen to the theme song again (Ponyo, Ponyo, tiny little fish! She's a little fish from the deep blue sea!).


As the movie opens, five-year-old Sosuke finds a goldfish trapped in a bottle. She is, however, one of hundreds of sister-goldfish who are the daughters of a wild red-headed magician and a luminous sea-goddess. Ponyo -- Sosuke's name for her -- is a formidable child, and steals magic from her father to return to Sosuke. This magic, unleashed, creates a universal imbalance; threatening Sosuke, his mother, and father, a sailor who's gone out for an extra trip.

It's a powerful movie, and a funny, sweet movie -- it's full of fear and courage and love. It may be too frightening for some small children; my boys told me it wasn't too scary for them, and have requested it repeatedly (each one of them) since our first viewing. Once it's no longer available for free (right now, it's on the Encore movie channel, as well as Netflix streaming, if you have subscriptions for either of those), we'll probably buy it. I've just ordered My Neighbor Totoro on DVD, to start our Miyazaki collection; something every movie-loving family should have.

Ponyo asks a lot of questions that a parent might appreciate, like, how much of my child's imagination should I engage in? When should disbelief be suspended? How far can we trust our children to be courageous and to open their hearts with abandon when crises are upon us? (Very far, if Sosuke is any indication.) Do children really have the power to rend, or heal, the earth, for love? Can crossing over from disbelief to faith -- however reluctantly you do it -- make all the difference?

In addition to these deep and affirming themes, Ponyo is also beautiful in the way Miyazaki's movies always are, full of transformation and liquid animation. There are many mysteries that cannot be answered; the nature of the magic potions, the life cycle of the children of magicians and goddesses, how much can we trust a five-year-old to promise to love a creature forever, truly? But those are immaterial; what matters is that unique Japanese sense of building family and community not just out of those who live in your house or in your neighborhood, but also out of even the most random chance encounter. And still, despite it all, retaining one's sense of humor and quirky personality (Ponyo's love for ham and her enormous appetite are two examples; Sosuke's mom's frustration with her husband that helps her quell her fear is another).

It's a gateway drug to a lifetime of addiction to Miyazaki; and if your children are already fans of Pokemon or Yu-gi-oh, you'll welcome the opportunity to watch anime flow from cute and smart to richly gorgeous and intellectual. Yep: an intellectual movie about a little boy falling in love with a magic goldfish. You have to see it to believe it.


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I am a huge Miyazaki fan and appreciate that he has created some of the best female characters on film. 'My neighbor Totoro' has long been my children's very favorite movie.

I wasn't too sure I'd like this movie but one day when my daughter was sick we watched it together and it was amazing! You're right, the story does seem a little goofy but it was done so, so well. For weeks afterward my 4 year old played Ponyo and Sosuke with her dolls and animals.

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