"I don't want you to turn into a fish again. I'd miss you."
Ponyo (the actual title is Gake no Ue no Ponyo, literally translated as Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) is a 2008 anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, the world-renowned anime director/animator (known for such films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle, among others). Like many of the films by his studio, Studio Ghibli, it, dubbed with an all-star cast (ranging from the folk hero Liam Neeson to a sibling of annoying pop star Miley Cyrus), was distributed with the help of Walt Disney Pictures. Ponyo tells the story of a goldfish-like creature (Ponyo) who escapes her tyrannical father (Fujimoto (who, I might add, looks strangely like Beetlejuice)) to find the outside world, eventually striving to become human so she can spend her life with Sousuke, a 5-year-old boy she meets on a trek aboard dry land.
The film's animation is of great quality, as most of Studio Ghibli's work is (from what I've heard: the only other film I've seen by them is Princess Mononoke), and the music is pretty charming (even with the basis of one of the songs on Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (at least, I've read there's a connection there)). The voice acting seemed great in the English dub (though I don't know how well it actually fits the feel of the original Japanese: I have yet to watch that).
The real thing, though, is the story. It was actually inspired by and loosely based on the Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen entitled "Den lille havfrue," whose English title is "The Little Mermaid" (and yes, the 1989 Disney musical animated film was based on the same story). If you've seen the Disney film, then you already know how Ponyo will end, even if the path to the ending is very different. An interesting thing is that the film takes place in modern-day Japan, not 1800s Denmark, which lends it an intriguing feel.
All in all, I didn't think the story was bad, I just consider it more of a children's story. It may not be incredibly deep, but it has some layers, and it has enough witty lines and well-drawn animation to keep adults watching as well. The ending, like most children's stories and fairy tales, is predictable, but that shouldn't be counted against it: that's just the nature of the genre. The path to reach the ending includes some less predictable twists (though nothing too shocking), and this path is also populated by vibrant, laughter-inducing characters.
In conclusion, then, I'd consider Ponyo to be a fun film to watch, enjoyable for both children and adults. While I wouldn't count it as considerably deep or thought-provoking, it provides some wholesome family entertainment (at least, I'm pretty sure it did), so it's not something that will feel like a waste of your time. Overall, I'd give Ponyo an 8/10. Not a film I'll rant and rave about, but one I wouldn't mind recommending to someone in a mood for a witty children's fairy tale.
A Deeper Look
For me, Ponyo provided an experience I haven't had in a while: watching an English dub before the original Japanese. I much prefer to watch anime subtitled; I think the inflections and voices of the Japanese actors can often more accurately portray how the creators intended the characters to be (since, if I understand the dubbing process correctly, which I may not, the Japanese actors have more communication with the creators than the English ones do). That's not to say I condemn English dubs: I just want them to accurately portray the characters and to be done well.
With Ponyo, I can't analyze that first criteria, since I haven't watched the original Japanese yet (I saw this film in a group, if you were wondering why I watched it dubbed to begin with), but I can tell that the dub definitely fits the first criteria: it is done extremely well. While the fact that Ponyo's voice is Miley Cyrus' little sister (and Miley Cyrus definitely bugs me) and Sousuke's voice is the Jonas Brothers' little brother (and the Jonas Brothers definitely bug me), I couldn't even tell while watching the film. The voices seemed to go well with the characters, from what I can tell (although, like I said, I need to watch the original still), and I loved the fact that Liam Neeson was in there. He's just got a very cool voice (like James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, who would sound incredible in English dubs of anime), plus he makes the character witty, which is always good.
Overall, then, I actually liked the dub of Ponyo (so far), even if I'll always prefer subtitles.
As for the story aspect, like I said, it's a fairy tale meant for kids. I've heard some people say that it has some bad themes; for instance, the fact that Ponyo doesn't care about the balance of nature and that she risks all of nature just to get what she wants (to be with Sousuke). I heard one person say that this could instigate extreme, dangerous individualism in people watching the film. While I agree that extreme individualism is a terrible thing, hands down, I'm not sure if a children's fairy tale could instigate it. That might just be my view as an older person (a.k.a. not a child), though: I can see that this is just a fairy tale and that it's not realistic. Of course, then you have to think: why was the fairy tale written? Was it written to promote some moral? That's a possibility. So if the whole moral it's promoting is individualism, then there's a problem. The thing is, I didn't get that vibe from watching the film. I wouldn't have even thought of it if I hadn't heard someone mention it after the fact. In the end, then, do I agree that there's some morals in Ponyo that might not be correct? Yes, I think that individualism is incorrect. Do I think that Ponyo will corrupt children and other viewers? Not so much. True, I don't really know the effect it could have on a child, but I know on me it didn't really have any effect. I'm strong in my acknowledgment of individualism's faults, so maybe the effect is different on everyone.
What's the final message, then? Just keep a bit of a look out when having children (and people with child-like minds) watch Ponyo, and make sure they understand that this individualism is not ideal morality. Does that I mean that I think Ponyo is an evil, corruptive film, then? Of course not, as long as you use some common sense and make sure people are aware of the faults.
Even with that individualism debacle, I'd still probably recommend Ponyo, though; it hasn't colored my thoughts of the film that much.
Nota Bene: All images courtesy of Google Image Search. Thanks to Wikipedia for lots of useful background information. And thanks to that random person analyzing Ponyo after watching the film for inspiring the last part of my post.