You'll be planning to see "Ponyo" twice before you've finished seeing it once. Five minutes into this magical film you'll be making lists of the individuals of every age you can expose to the very special mixture of fantasy and folklore, adventure and affection, that make up the enchanted vision of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki.
The great genius of contemporary animation, who won the 2002 Oscar for best animated feature (for "Spirited Away," which also took the Golden Bear at Berlin), Miyazaki is more than revered in the international animation community.
But though he got a rare standing ovation at the recent Comic-Con, Miyazaki's work has never made the kind of impact in the mainstream American market it deserves. Plans, however, are afoot to change all that with this remarkable story of a goldfish who wants ever so desperately to be a little girl.
"Ponyo" is a sweet-natured film that emphasizes the joys of childhood friendships, but though it has a lot in common with Miyazaki's gentle classic "My Neighbor Totoro," it still manages to be exciting when it needs to, and it's been given first-class treatment by distributor Walt Disney Studios.
John Lasseter, Pixar and Disney's reigning guru and a longtime Miyazaki admirer, has brought on "E.T." screenwriter Melissa Mathison to do the film's English-language adaptation, and hired such top-quality voice talent as Liam Neeson, Tina Fey and Cate Blanchett to bring to life for domestic audiences a story that echoes Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."
Underlying everything, the constant that unites all of the director's 10 features, is Miyazaki's exceptional filmmaking imagination, his ability to bring us into other worlds, to stretch our minds without seeming to break a sweat in the process.
Paralleling this is Miyazaki's intuitive understanding of magic and how best to use it on screen. It's not just that there are supernatural doings in "Ponyo," including all-powerful wizards and goddesses who control the heavens and the seas, it's the film's notion that magic haunts the edges of the everyday, mixing with the ordinary in ways we don't always take the time to notice.
"Ponyo" begins not with the ordinary but with an extraordinary vision of a dazzling undersea world that is rich with visual wonders. One of the reigning powers is the long-haired Fujimoto (voiced by Neeson), an intimidating wizard who struggles to keep the sea healthy, and finds humans disgusting because the trash they create gets in his way.
Fujimoto's daughter, Ponyo, a goldfish with a delightful face, not surprisingly sees humans in a completely different light. In fact, Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, Miley's sister) is desperate to become human herself. Managing to find a way to the surface of the ocean, she gets trapped in a glass jar and nearly dies before a 5-year-old boy comes to her rescue.
That would be Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, a Jonas Brothers sibling), who's beside himself with glee at the discovery. "She came to me, I saved her, she's my responsibility," he pleads to his put-upon mom Lisa (Fey), who finally lets him keep his new aquatic friend.
Ponyo, however, proves to be a delightfully willful creature, determined to have her own way in all things. She accompanies Sosuke in a bucket as he goes about his day, going to school and visiting the nursing home where his mother works and where a trio of eccentric old ladies (Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Betty White) are his good friends.
Though circumstances conspire to return Ponyo to the sea, she is not the type to give up on anything. But the actions she takes to become human have far-reaching consequences, causing a storm to end all storms that jeopardizes everyone Sosuke knows, including his mother and his ocean-going father Koichi (Matt Damon).
Will the intervention of sea goddess Gran Mamare (Blanchett), who happens to be Ponyo's mother, be necessary to set things right? You'll be holding your breath until you find out.
Because writer-director Miyazaki very much follows his own star when it comes to story, narratives like "Ponyo" remind you of no one else's tales. Not only do they offer up fantastical images, like Ponyo running on the crests of waves, they make deep connections to our emotions without following conventional paths, using the logic of dreams to excellent effect.
The child within this singular director couldn't be stronger and, for that, adults and children both will always be grateful.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release