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Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea: Studio Ghibli Retells The Little Mermaid

Film Review: Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, or just Ponyo (depending on where in the world you are), is an animated, Japanese, family, adventure film. Hayao Miyazaki, the anime master himself, directs. Essentially, H.C. Andersen’s classic fairytale of the little mermaid gets the Studio Ghibli treatment. It’s a very loose adaptation. And very beautiful. And very poignant. The opening underwater animation sequences are exquisite, art in motion.

The Fish Who Would be Human

The story follows the adventures of one little human-faced fish, who’s seeking larger waters than the aquarium, she’s currently confined to. She shares the cage with her identical sisters in the underwater abode of a mysterious wizard. She escapes and meets at the shoreline a little boy named Sōsuke, who rescues her and takes her home in a bucket. He names her Ponyo, feeds her a ham sandwich, and wants to keep her. But the wizard is on his way to reclaim her, controlling the waves to get her back.

Against her will, the human-faced fish, now called Ponyo, is returned to her underwater prison. The wizard exhausts his powers to restrain and contain her. But Ponyo has tasted freedom and ham and even a drop of Sōsuke’s blood (when he cut his hand rescuing her), and she wants out. And Ponyo, we quickly learn, has expansive magical powers of her own. She transforms herself into a little girl and escapes, running along the crests of the waves, returning to Sōsuke.


Sōsuke, who had been mourning the loss of his special fish, immediately recognizes this little girl as Ponyo. He and his mother take her in on this dark and stormy night. Yes, a very sudden and frightening storm is raging, threatening Sōsuke’s seaside town, the very island. Sōsuke and his mother fear for the safety of his dad, who is aboard a ship in these stormy waters. Fearing for the inhabitants at the seniors’ center, where she works, Sōsuke’s mother decides to leave the children to head to work.

By the dawn, water laps at the door to Sōsuke’s hilltop house. A tsunami has swallowed everything. The moon is incredibly close, filling the sky. Something is sorely amiss. Sōsuke and Ponyo – utilizing Ponyo’s magic – set out to find Sōsuke’s mother. But Ponyo’s powers are unstable. She’s increasingly tired and flickering between human and fish and all the evolutionary steps in between. Something is gravely wrong.

Richly Detailed and Poignant

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea has a much happier ending than Andersen’s original tale. That much I can say. This is a family film with intrepid, independent children out to chart a course. It’s about the generational gap, about the impetuousness of youth. Yeah, maybe that big, bad wizard isn’t so bad after all. Maybe a certain impetuous and headstrong human-faced fish turned girl has jeopardized the very balance of the universe. That in contradicting the interdiction, the world is threatened. Maybe.

As with all Studio Ghibli films, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is full of nuance and poetic tellings and rich details. It is a beautiful, poignant film, a feast for eyes, be they old or young. I can only recommend it.


Content Note: Rated G. Nothing to come after.

Where to Watch: DVD.

Photo Credit: Studio Ghibli.


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By on March 18th, 2019

About Jessica Jørgensen

A lover of words, stories and storytellers since her youth and just plain curious by nature, Jessica embarked on a very long academic journey that took her across a continent (from Canada's west coast to its east) and even to the other side of the globe, where she currently lives an expat existence in Denmark. She now trails many fancy initials behind her name, if she ever cares to use them, and continues to be ever so curious. She's a folklorist, a mother, a wife, a middle child, a small town girl, a beekeeper, an occasional quilter, a jam-maker. She curates museum exhibits, gets involved in many cultural projects for this and that, collects oral histories when she can find the time and continues to love stories in all their many and varied forms. The local librarians all know her by name.

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