Ponyo, the latest Japanese anime fantasy to gain American distribution, is the most broadly accessible movie of that genre to ever reach these shores. Charming, amusing and firmly anchored in a child's point of view, this movie from the master animator of Spirited Away makes a great introduction to that acquired-taste style of filmmaking.
A great wizard — voiced by Liam Neeson and drawn like a redheaded Johnny Depp — controls "the balance of the sea" and frets over the "waste and filth" that "these abominable humans" have brought to the place he calls home.
But when one of his "goldfish" daughters slips out of her nursery and is found by a 5-year-old Japanese boy, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), the wizard Fujimoto has to contend with the humans to try and bring back his magical child. She, whom the boy has named Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus), is determined to become human, to Dad's chagrin.
The movie is about Fujimoto's threat to make the seas destroy humankind and about Ponyo's magical influence on Sosuke and his world. Ponyo discovers ramen noodles and ham. Sosuke learns that his playmate has powers over the sea (gigantic fish morph into waves) and everything in it.
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It's a very Japanese movie, with nicely illustrated slices of life in a port town. The kid goes to day care right next door to where Mom (Tina Fey) works, a retirement home filled with spirited seniors (Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin voice those little old ladies).
It's too long, and the ending is abrupt and contrived, but Hayao Miyazaki's film has been translated in a way that grasps his playfulness, his eye and ear for the whimsical. Sosuke's mom and his ship's captain dad (Matt Damon) bicker by signal light, for instance.
The environmental messages include condemnations of pollution and clean-sweep trawler-fishing practices.
The animation, always a bit jerky and more washed out than classical Western (Disney) fare, is as fanciful as ever. Miyazaki has conjured up a fable that connects most directly with the very young, that age when the idea of a cute fish becoming a magically cute little girl is as natural as "once upon a time."