In the same week that the South African import District 9 gives us a Johannesburg beset by alien invaders, the latest film by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki envisions a small Japanese port town turned upside down by visitors from the bottom of the sea. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, by way of Jules Verne, Miyazaki's Ponyo sticks to Andersen's basic story of an enchanted sea creature and her love for a human — except, in the Miyazaki version, the mermaid princess is an anthropomorphic goldfish, and her handsome prince is a 5-year-old schoolboy still in full possession of his baby teeth.
The advance word on Ponyo — which opened in Japan last year and arrives here in an English-dubbed version adapted by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison and supervised by Pixar guru John Lasseter — had suggested that the film would mark a conscious return by Miyazaki to the gentler, more kid-friendly style of movies such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service after the epic-scaled and sometimes violent narratives of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. And while that might be the case, the appeal of Ponyo is hardly limited to the Romper Room set. It's a movie for anyone who, like Miyazaki himself, can still happily commune with his inner 5-year-old.
The great ocean deep proves a natural canvas for Miyazaki, who has set previous films against the clouds of the sky and the fragile topography of the Earth, and he responds by filling the screen with a Cousteau-worthy panorama of iridescent sea flora and magnificently scaled, tentacled creatures of all shapes and sizes. One of them, Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, sister of Miley), who carries a distinctly human head atop her fish body, is introduced as the daughter of Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), an eccentric alchemist who himself resembles a cross between Captain Nemo and Ziggy Stardust and who has been charged — presumably by Ponyo's ocean-goddess mother (Cate Blanchett) — with maintaining the delicate ecological balance of the seas. Trouble ensues when Ponyo swims a bit too far from home, gets caught in a fishing net, and washes up onshore trapped inside a littered glass jar.
So Ponyo meet-cutes Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), who rescues her, takes her to kindergarten with him in a plastic bucket, and seems altogether unsurprised — in the way Miyazaki's characters so often do upon encountering the unexplainable — when the fish blurts out its declaration of love for him. And this is before Ponyo, having been briefly recaptured by her flustered father, returns once more to the surface, this time in human form, bringing along a hurricane-force storm caused by her disturbance of Fujimoto's magic, ocean-altering potions.
Coming about halfway into Ponyo's modest, 100-minute running time, that storm — capped by the fantastical image of Ponyo running atop a series of tsunami-size waves — ranks among Miyazaki's most majestic set pieces and ushers in a whole new collection of visual possibilities. After the rain subsides, the waters have risen so high that they cover the entire town, with prehistoric fish swimming down former city streets and a low-hanging moon pulling an armada of commercial ships (including the one captained by Sosuke's father) close to an enormous, suspended wall of water. Into this topsy-turvy world, Ponyo and Sosuke set out in a candle-powered toy boat to try to restore order to the universe.
Like much of Miyazaki's work, Ponyo carries an unsubtle environmental message: "They spoil the sea. They treat your home like their empty, black souls," decries Fujimoto, a human or former human himself — such details are ultimately trivial in the Miyazaki universe — who shudders at his beloved child's desire to live among the two-legged. (Perhaps he has seen The Cove, the recent documentary about the horrors of the black-market Japanese dolphin-harvesting industry.) Miyazaki, too, is keenly aware that nothing — neither children nor oceans — stays pure and innocent forever, and yet, as he glances at the world once more through a child's wide, unspoiled eyes, he seems to find hope for renewal.