Visually charming if narratively simple, and sporadically touching, “Ponyo,” the new animated film from the Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) takes moviegoers on a new adventure that celebrates the power of innocent love and the beauty of the natural world.


“Ponyo” was the most commercial film in Japan in 2008 and ranks as the 80th grossing picture in Japan's film history.  To date, the film has grossed more than $165 million worldwide.  Disney will release the film on August 14, 2009, featuring an all-star English-language voice cast, which includes newcomers such as Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas in the leads, as well as vet and experienced thespians like Cate Blnachett, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, and Tina Fey.  The picture also benefits from the eccentricities of three seasoned ladies, Chloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White.


The film is inspired (very very loosely based on) by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” which Disney and other studios have made into animated and/or live-action features.  Depicting the social and natural world as they are consistently seen from the point of view of a young boy, “Ponyo” should appeal to young children and adults who may want to rekindle memories of their own childhood.


“Ponyo” tells the story of a young, overeager goldfish and her quest to become a fully-fledge feeling human being.  End result is an enchanting fable, based on a visually stunning blend of imagination, humor, action, mystery, love and romance.


Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus) is a mischievous and adventurous little goldfish, who drifts away from the undersea home she shares with her father, the wizard Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), and hundreds of other little sisters.  Far from  home, she meets Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), a 5-year-old boy who lives by the sea with his mother Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey).  From the start Sosuke cares for his new pet, quickly winning Ponyo’s heart.


Ponyo’s father, desperate for his daughter to return to their undersea home, uses his magic to bring her back, much to Ponyo’s dismay. But Ponyo, always the stubborn little goldfish, longs to return to her special friend.  As a result, she magically transforms herself into a little girl and finds her way back to Sosuke’s house where she and her friend embark on a series of adventures.

Several emotional scenes deserve special mention.  In one, Ponyo arrives at Sosuke’s house as a girl while a huge storm rages outside.  Sosuke’s mother just cooks the usual noodles, but Ponyo discovers with aw that she really loves this food.  Since Ponyo is a brand-new little girl, every experience is brand new to her.


Later on, Ponyo’s desire to be human upsets the delicate balance of nature, triggering a gigantic storm, the longest, most stunning scene in the picture. We find out that only Ponyo’s mother, a beautiful, semi-mythical sea goddess (voiced by Cate Blanchett), can restore nature’s balance and perhaps make Ponyo’s dreams come true.

While there's a story, what matters more are the varied tone and the touching mood of the fairytale, not to mention the notion of love, seldom depicted with such honesty and intensity in American movies (animated and live-action) that revolve around such young protagonists.


The gifted and prolific Miyazaki, whose “Spirited Away” captured the 2003 Oscar for Best Animated Film, has also directed the Oscar-nominated film “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and the acclaimed films “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Castle in the Sky.”


The director describes “Ponyo” in a way that makes it seem a high-concept, simplistic feature, which it is not.  He says: “It's about a little boy and a little girl, love and responsibility, the ocean and life—these things, and that which is most elemental to them, are depicted in the most basic way in Ponyo.”   What he means, I think, is that the movie is composed of basic, essential, pure elements, rather than simple ones per se.


“Ponyo” was produced by Toshio Suzuki (“Spirited Away”), a longtime friend and associate of Miyazaki. Chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar Animation John Lasseter (“Toy Story” movies, “Cars”) directed the English-language voice talent, along with Brad Lewis (producer of “Ratatouille”) and Peter Sohn (supervisor of story-animation for “The Incredibles”).