With all the summer buzz about the new Hayao Miyazaki film, Ponyo (2009), I thought maybe this would be my son Ben’s first movie-theater movie. He’s been reluctant to go to the theater, cautious of the loud soundtrack and the sense of disappearing into the story (which of course I love). I showed both boys the trailer and Ben, not surprisingly, said “That looks like a movie I might want to watch at home on DVD.” But his younger brother Eli wanted to go to the movies, and so while Ben was at school one day the two of us went to the theater together for the first time since he was a sling-riding baby who nursed while I dropped bits of popcorn on his head.
We lasted an hour. The movie is set in a coastal Japanese village, and tells the story of a little boy, Sosuke, who saves a magic fish and names it Ponyo; in a milder version of The Little Mermaid, Ponyo falls in love with Sosuke and turns herself into a girl so that she can live with him, an act that causes a flood which threatens to destroy the world. Her father, Fujimoto (a creepy, long-haired wizard fresh off The Yellow Submarine) wants to keep Ponyo underwater with him, but her mother (drawn as a little girl’s fantasy of a mermaid princess, with full lips, dreamy eyes and streaming pink hair) allows that if Sosuke pledges his eternal love, and Ponyo agrees to give up her magic, the two can live together and the “balance of nature will be restored.” Sosuke’s mother, a harried and effectively single mom (married to a fisherman) has no say in the matter. Sosuke and Ponyo are five.
At first, Eli and I were both captivated by the look of the film. Whatever else you might think of Miyazaki’s work (which is often a bit didactic and light on plot), it is unquestionably beautiful. His hand-drawn animation is rich and warm and full of lively details. I’ll never forgot his colorful fish swimming through the leaves of flooded trees, and Eli laughed at the sight of Ponyo sleeping underneath a jelly fish blanket. The look is a bit psychedelic, a bit Peter Max, but it’s bright and fun. I loved the feisty independence of Ponyo (one in a long line of strong girls created by Miyazaki) and the bravery of her friend, Sosuke; I loved the intergenerational friendship (another Miyazaki trait) between Sosuke and the three grandmotherly ladies who frequent the senior center where his mom, Lisa, works. And any film that pauses to toss in a random pro-breastfeeding message (with Ponyo offering the breastfeeding mom a sandwich, saying, “Here, make some milk!”) is okay with me.
But there’s plenty that I didn’t love. The environmental message, while indisputable, is heavy-handed; every time Fujimoto appears, he is sighing about the dirty humans. I didn’t love that the fate of the world hinges on a five-year-old boy pledging eternal devotion to his fish-girl friend. Sosuke’s mom, Lisa, who drives fast and cracks a beer when she’s frustrated at the end of a long day, is one of the more complicated characters, and for the most part I liked her, but she’s definitely got moments of questionable judgment; I know that seeing her drive her child back into the evacuation zone during the flood would have sent my rule-conscious older son running from the theater. What finally made Eli ask to leave was his growing unease with the angry Fujimoto: first Lisa calls him a freak show; then we cringed at the sight of him pushing down on his small daughter to prevent her from growing; finally Ponyo herself says, “He hates humans! He keeps me in a bubble!” Hearing his discomfort confirmed by the character’s own daughter was all Eli needed to hear, and we headed for the door.
I returned the next afternoon, alone, to watch the rest of Ponyo (which channels Ron Howard’s Cocoon before coming to its strange but essentially happy ending), but in the meantime, at home that evening, I watched a movie with many similarities to Ponyo: John Sayles’ beautiful The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Like Ponyo, people rave about The Secret of Roan Inish, so much so that I’d avoided this film for years, skeptical that anything which inspires such passionately enthusiastic outbursts could live up to its reputation. And while I think Ponyo misses the mark for a kid’s movie, Roan Inish, which also features children in the main roles, aims for an older audience and quietly satisfies.
Like Ponyo, The Secret of Roan Inish offers a gorgeous coastal setting, with long shots of the wind blowing across fields dotted with blue and yellow flowers. As in Ponyo, the ocean is a character here, its various moods — from darkly threatening to playful — captured beautifully by Sayles’ exquisite camerawork. And Roan Inish features a friendship between two strong-willed and independent children, a boy named Eamon and his cousin Fiona. Her mother dead, her baby brother lost at sea, and her father buried in grief, Fiona is sent to live with her grandparents in a coastal Irish town. There, relatives spin tales of seal kings marrying village girls and selkies, those mythical half-woman half-seal creatures from whom, they claim, their family is descended. They tell her that her brother Jamie was swept away in his cradle by an angry sea on the day the family abandoned life on the island of Roan Inish. When her grandfather takes Fiona out to visit the island, she sees signs of Jamie — a footprint, a cup — and then sees him, a chubby and naked toddler riding his cradle-boat on the waves. So Fiona, with Eamon’s help, decides to restore the old house on Roan Inish, sailing out to the island day after day, in the hope that if the family returns, the sea will return Jamie to them.
The notion that the work of children can restore a family is almost as crazy as the notion that drives Ponyo’s storyline, but what makes it more palatable here is that Sayles’ film never puts it in such stark terms: The Family Depends on Fiona. Instead, her actions are the natural result of the relationships that develop quietly as she does chores with her grandfather and listens to his stories, or as she sits at the table eating food her grandmother laments is a pale substitute for what they could raise on the island. They yearn for the island as they yearn for their lost grandchild, and Fiona sets about quietly, competently to return them both.
Since leaving the movie theater with Eli the other day, I haven’t stopped talking about either of these movies with friends, untangling the various ways in which they are and aren’t appropriate kids’ movies. The Secret of Roan Inish, like Ponyo, comes to a happy ending, but the story is steeped in too much sadness and loss, the mythology perhaps a little troubling for younger kids. But we’ll watch it together in a couple of years, and I expect we might even come back to Ponyo, because both, at heart, tell stories I want my children to witness, about strong kids who thrive when they’re left to their own devices. As Sosuke’s mother says as she’s leaving (having carefully arranged a tray of snacks for him and Ponyo), “You’re only five but you’re very smart. Sometimes, we take a leap!” My sheltered city kids need to hear that because honestly, they don’t get many chances to take a leap. Ben’s next might just be going to a movie.