We just returned from seeing Ponyo, after it unexpectedly opened in town. And I can't wipe the smile off my face.
Thanks to Disney, John Lasseter and other champions, Hayao Miyazaki has received plenty of exposure in the United States. Yet it's still difficult to describe what makes his films so special.
For me it's the combination of precisely observed behavior -- especially child behavior -- with an unhurried pace, a total lack of concern for cinematic economy that leads to a richness of detail, and the impression that the filmmakers somehow translated images that bubbled up in imagination or dreams directly onto the screen with no intervening technical steps. The idle thought that a goldfish looks something like a little girl in a red dress becomes an exuberant sequence of transformation. Yet just as much delight comes from watching the fleeting yet all-consuming emotions passing across a child's face as he waits for his noodles to cook.
Miyazaki wears his heart on his sleeve, and the mythological and ecological fantasy of Ponyo might be too big a leap for some viewers. But its utter sincerity and wild invention is of a piece with the empathy the film shows for a little boy who walks barefoot over the crest of a hill wiping tears from his eyes and looking for his mother. I watched every moment of the movie with delight, as much in the evidence of freedom found in the drawing style and pacing from moment to moment, as in the overwhelming joy expressed by the children's wide, simple smiles.