Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.
His most recent film, Ponyo (Disney), is released this week by Disney, which—despite the great voice line-up of their English language adaptations—treats his films more like exotic imports than mainstream movies. Part Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, part ecological fable and part children’s fantasy come to life, this gentle storybook film is a simple, sweet tale animated with a delicacy unique to animated features. Ponyo is a water sprite, a curious undersea creature and daughter of the sea gods who gets swept to the shore, trapped in the pollution of the human world and rescued by a human boy, with whom she falls in love. This isn’t the romantic type of love of Disney’s The Little Mermaid but the unconditional affection of young kids and she takes human form to join him on land, which upsets the balance of nature so carefully kept in check by her wizard father (voice of Liam Neeson) and elemental mother (Cate Blanchett).