Ponyo is a typical "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy re-finds girl and they live happily ever after" sort of story.
Only the boy here is 5 years old. And the girl's a fish.
Let's start with the fish. Ponyo is the progeny of a semi-human father (a sorcerer with a fondness for striped suits and '80s metal-band hair) and a sea-goddess mother. So Ponyo's ... different. She's far bigger than any of her guppy-sized sisters, for one thing. She has a fairly human face, for another. And she's got an insatiable curiosity about the topside world. So one watery day, while her dad's busy concocting something, she hops on a jellyfish and makes her way to the surface.
Once there, she promptly gets stuck in a jelly jar that's lying amongst the underwater trash near the shore.
A human child named Sosuke, who at first mistakes Ponyo for a very expressive (and not very gold) goldfish, rescues her by smashing the jar with a rock, cutting himself in the process. The semiconscious Ponyo slurps the blood off his finger—healing the cut instantly. The two forge a friendship by, well, staring at each other. What else do you do with a fish?
About the time Ponyo suddenly starts chatting ("Ponyo loves Sosuke!"), her father sweeps in and takes her back down to the ocean floor.
But that drop of blood Ponyo licked off Sosuke's finger is powering some serious changes in her fishy body. She sprouts chicken-like arms and legs. She babbles on and on about Sosuke. And finally, with the help of her legions of sprightly sisters, she breaks out of her father's undersea home and zips to the surface again, determined to become fully human and find her best friend.
Unfortunately, Ponyo—through accident, fate, her own barely understood powers or a combination of all three—has ripped a hole through the earth's fabric of normalcy and sparked an environmental catastrophe. The moon trundles closer, causing the seas to bunch up in weird, watery mountains. Prehistoric fish appear. And most of Sosuke's little island home is flooded like it's never been flooded before.
To paraphrase another undersea cartoon character, With friends like Ponyo, who needs anemonies?
Sosuke is the kindest, bravest, most considerate 5-year-old you're ever likely to meet. He says "please" and "thank-you." He bows to his elders and does origami for little old ladies. And, as I've noted, he takes good care of strange-looking fish.
He also takes care of his mom and dad (Lisa and Koichi). When his father—a ship captain—takes an unplanned tour at sea (royally ticking off Lisa), Sosuke tries to patch things up between them. He exchanges Morse code messages with his father's ship, and when a furious Lisa sends a few messages of her own—"bug off!"—Sosuke tries to console her.
"I know dad breaks his promises sometimes," he says. "But he does his best for us."
Later, Lisa leaves Sosuke and a now-human Ponyo to help a batch of senior citizens during a wicked storm: She tells Sosuke that he has to be the man of the house while she's gone, promising she'll be right back. Sosuke takes on the responsibility with manly resolve. And when Mom doesn't come back, he taps into that same resolve as he sets off with Ponyo to find her.
Now, no parent would ever want their 5-year-old taking on the risks and responsibilities that Sosuke takes. The film forces Sosuke to grow up far before his time. But given the fabricated circumstances, Sosuke is the unquestioned hero—always thinking of others, always trying to do the right thing, always pushing forward when most adults would likely be rolling themselves up in a fetal ball. He's what 5-year-olds wish they could be, given the chance—an ever-strong, ever-wise Christopher Robin, surrounded by creatures depending on him.
Ponyo also contains a measured environmental message: We see that polluting the seas are bad (Ponyo must escape a net that's scraping more garbage than fish from the bottom of the ocean) and there's talk about bringing the natural world into balance with itself. Here's the measured part: Sosuke's dad—a nice guy, in the film's ethos—captains a huge cargo ship, while the main not-so-nice guy wants to rid the world of pollution by ridding it of humans.
Ponyo is from Japanese anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away), and as such it takes its spiritual cues from Eastern polytheistic religious traditions.
As mentioned, Ponyo's mother is a sea goddess, portrayed in a similar vein as the Greek and Roman deities of classical literature. When we first meet her, she appears almost as a rainbow of water and sparkles, saving a ship (perhaps many ships) from destruction. (Two deck hands offer prayers up to the goddess, hands folded and one accompanying his prayer with a quick clap.) Later, we see her in fully human form—a head taller than most everyone else and blessed with red, ever-undulating hair. Ponyo describes her as being very beautiful, adding that she can get pretty angry and scary at times. "Just like my mom!" says Sosuke.
Ponyo's father is an alchemist who creates powerful potions from the sea. He keeps these potions locked in a room, hoping to use them one day to destroy humankind. He can send out creatures made of water to do his bidding and uses his magic to keep Ponyo, for a time, in a small, pollywog-like state. He says he was once human.
Ponyo herself is a magical being who can morph from fish to human to a more magical half-human hybrid. When she performs a magic trick—causing a toy boat to grow bigger or curing someone's cold, for instance—her hands and feet turn into chicken-like appendages and her face spreads out, making her look a little like a Muppet. Her sisters can transform into huge watery fish-like creatures: They appear, in some ways, to be analogous to the mythical nyads.
A gaggle of senior citizens, encased in an underwater world, figure they must be on "the other side." When one doubts this to be true, another says, "Where do you think we are? Las Vegas?"
While Sosuke and Ponyo's relationship is very innocent, Miyazaki seems to consciously infuse his tale with hints of loves and changes to come. Ponyo's transformation and even rebellion seem to suggest future adolescence. "If only you could remain innocent and pure forever," Ponyo's father laments. Sosuke's own path feels like a coming-of-age trope: A boy's voyage into manhood in which he must cherish, protect and care for the one he loves.
[Spoiler Warning] The world, as it turns out, hinges on Ponyo's and Sosuke's undying affection for each other. Sosuke must promise to care for Ponyo always, and Ponyo's asked to give up her fishy ways in order to live in Sosuke's world. It is, I think, a conscious echo of a wedding—an idea emphasized when an observer wonders aloud whether they might be too young.
Miyazaki is a master of imagery and, while none of the images in Ponyo are as dark as he created in his Oscar-winning Spirited Away, the film instills a sense of foreboding and menace that, at times, seems to rub against its G rating.
That said, there's very little actual violence here. Sosuke cuts his hand on a jar. A fish seems to swallow a jellyfish whole. Water creatures occasionally drag folks down to the depths of the ocean (with no ill effects). Sosuke leaps into the arms of an old woman, accidentally knocking her off her feet. Before being saved by his mother, Sosuke nearly drowns trying to follow Ponyo into the ocean.
Crude or Profane Language
Name-calling includes "jerk."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Lisa, after hearing that her husband won't be coming home for dinner, pours what appears to be a frothy beer. Ponyo's father sips one of his potions and says he can feel the power of the ocean rushing through him.
Other Negative Elements
Sosuke's mom is kinda flaky. When a massive storm hits the island, she ignores evacuation orders and hops in her tiny car with Sosuke, braving the elements to get home. She careens past a roadblock and sprints ahead of the crashing waves. Had you heard about this escapade on CNN, you would've slapped your forehead and muttered, "What was she thinking!"
Later, she abandons her 5-year-old son, rushing out to possibly rescue some senior citizens. While we should laud Lisa for her willingness to help, it's pretty unconscionable to leave your preschooler to not just fend for himself but care for a strange girl (Ponyo) too—particularly if you're not completely sure you'll be able to make it back to the house.
Sosuke's father seems to volunteer for extra trips a lot—greatly upsetting his wife. "Go ahead!" she hollers at him over the phone. "Abandon your wife and child on a cliff all alone!"
Ponyo, in fish form, spits water at people she doesn't care for (and sometimes even at those she does). Neither Ponyo nor her sisters seem to respect or obey their father very much. And Ponyo swims away from home.
Giving a nod to evolution, Sosuke and Ponyo see fish that are said to be from the Devonian period—more than 400 million years ago. Tellingly, Ponyo's father keeps his potions locked up in a room called Pangaea, the name of the single, huge continent some scientists believe spawned our current outlay of continents about 250 million years ago.
Ponyo is loaded with positive messages and largely unburdened by issues of sex, violence or foul language. It brings to the screen the wonder that envelopes childhood, lauding both imagination and responsibility.
Well-known for his sometimes dark, always spiritually minded movies, Hayao Miyazaki seems to be consciously downshifting here into a more playful mode. Animism isn't at the forefront, for instance, in the way it is in Spirited Away. But Ponyo does still embrace a mystical, magical world that shares more in common with the fantastical supernatural folklore of the Far East and the ancient legends of gods in Greece and Rome than it does with, say, Tinkerbell.