Ponyo is a very curious goldfish, princess of an undersea kingdom and prisoner of a father/king who keeps her inside a bubble to protect her from human pollution.
In the enchanted and enthralling film that bears her name, the spirited Ponyo will defy her father, explore the shore, fall in love with a human boy, and trade fins for feet. Oh, and yes, throw the moon and tides off kilter, causing a tsunami. Can what Ponyo unbalanced be rebalanced?
The movie is the latest masterwork from Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "My Friend Totoro"), the Japanese artist whose standing as an animation storyteller is roughly equivalent to that of Matisse as a modern painter.
3 1/2 stars = Very good
- Starring: Voices of Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Liam Neeson.
- Rating: G.
Yet despite the distribution imprimatur of Pixar, Miyazaki remains a cult figure in America but a global phenom everywhere else.
How to explain why "Spirited Away" sold a scant $10 million in tickets here and $250 million worldwide? Is it because his movies adhere to dream logic rather than conventional ABC narrative?
"Ponyo" defies easy summary. Imagine "The Little Mermaid" as painted by a tag team of Hokusai and Sendak and fleshed out with the father/daughter tensions of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" -- and told so that it equally engages 5-year-olds and their grandparents. And most everybody else.
Miyazaki's vision of life under the sea is closer to the Pop Art of "Yellow Submarine" than to the photorealistic luminescence of "Finding Nemo."
Miyazaki hand-paints much of his imagery, and it has the transparency and intimacy of watercolor.
"Ponyo's" marine scenes are like an octopus's garden, blooming with sea anemone but also trashed with human detritus. Standing on the prow of a boat moored underwater is Ponyo's dandyish father (voice of Liam Neeson), resplendent in a striped jacket, skinny jeans and hair flowing like red kelp.
Once he was human, now he lives underwater in protest of humans who despoil the ocean.
Despite his warnings, Ponyo (voice of Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Miley's youngest sis) surfs to the ocean's surface on a jellyfish. When Ponyo gets stuck in a jar, she is freed by Sosuke (voice of Frankie Jonas, youngest bro of the singing sibs), age 5.
And when Ponyo lightly nibbles Sosuke's bleeding hand in gratitude, it is love at first bite. To be with her 5-year-old rescuer -- who feeds her ham! yum! -- Ponyo wondrously marshals wave-riding magic to transform herself from a finned to webbed to footed creature.
The film operates on many levels simultaneously. It is about a child's resistance to authority, the story of forbidden love, and an eco-allegory told in mesmerizingly lovely images.
You watch a Miyazaki film with the pie-eyed, gape-mouthed awe of a child being read the most fantastic story and suddenly transported to places previously beyond the limits of imagination. It's quite a trip.