At Showcase and Quality 16
Walt Disney Pictures/Studio Ghibli
3.5 out of 5 stars

More than most other so-called “kids” movies, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” actually seems to understand what life is like for a child. Its main character, the five-year-old Sosuke, is impressionable enough to take for granted the fact that his pet fish has suddenly turned into a human. He’s less frightened by encounters with magical creatures than he is when his mom speeds to get him to school on time. And his big moment of bravery comes not from defeating any evil villain, but from simply watching over the house while his mom has to run out in an emergency.

This attention to the details of a child’s life shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s previous films. Most of his earlier features have starred young children on simple quests who either enter a world of magic or let the magic come to them. There’s a reason why Miyazaki is the most revered living animator in the world today: His films are meticulously crafted works of beauty that attempt to engage people of all ages in his audience. And he typically succeeds in that mission.

Ponyo — a fish who longs to be human — is taken in by a little boy in a coastal village, much to the frustration of her human-despising wizard fish father, who floods the town in his anger until Ponyo can prove to him that she can support herself on two feet (literally). It’s a simple retelling of “The Little Mermaid” — emphasis on “simple.”

“Ponyo,” though equally as charming and magnificent to look at as any previous Miyazaki film, is not quite as successful at bridging the gap between his younger and older audiences. It’s closer in spirit to 1988’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” about two little girls who find a giant mythical animal in their backyard, than to 2001’s “Spirited Away,” about a girl who must work in a spirits’ bathhouse to free her captured parents.

Confidentially, “Spirited Away” is this reviewer’s favorite film, animated or otherwise. It touches on many adult themes, including the evils of human greed and the importance of maintaining one’s own identity, while at the same time entertaining younger viewers with cute creatures and slapstick humor. It’s a bit disappointing to discover that “Ponyo” is more interested in appealing to the latter demographic, though it does have a strong message about family and love (but what G-rated movie doesn’t?).

With “Ponyo,” Miyazaki doesn’t seem to be aiming as high, thematically, as he has in the past. At its heart, the film is a cute fairy tale, albeit one that’s breathtaking to look at. All the life forms in the sea are lovingly detailed, and there’s a bravura action sequence when Ponyo breaks free of her underwater prison by riding on the back of a school of fish.

As with Miyazaki’s previous Disney-distributed films, Pixar vice president John Lasseter (“Toy Story”) supervised the dubbing while also serving as an executive producer. Determined to reel in mass American audiences, he lined up an A-list cast for the English-language version, including Liam Neeson, Tina Fey and Matt Damon. Ponyo is voiced by Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah, and Sosuke by the “lost Jonas brother” Frankie Jonas; the two up-and-comers can take solace in knowing that, with this one film, they’ve already garnered more critical acclaim than the combined efforts of their older siblings.

When it comes down to it, “Ponyo” isn’t meant to be taken as anything more than a children’s flick. And in truth, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. The little kids in the theater absolutely adored it, and witnessing their admiration for a Miyazaki movie was incredibly rewarding. Every young generation needs a special movie to act as a “gateway film” for more sophisticated movies. For the children of the late 2000s, that film could be “Ponyo.”

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