If you don’t mind semi-ignoring the plot of “Ponyo” — and the movie makes it exceedingly easy to do just that — the latest feature from Japanese animation god Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”) is a sweetly lovable and visually trippy movie that young tots and their parents can enjoy in equal measure.
If you’re a fan of Miyazaki’s classic “My Neighbor Totoro,” which also looks at the world through a brave child’s eyes and loads that world with lots of far-out and friendly magical creatures, you’ll definitely tune in to what he’s doing with this very loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas, little brother of Those Brothers) is a 5-year-old boy who lives on a cliff by the ocean with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) and his father Koichi (Matt Damon), although dad is often out to sea working on a ship. One day, Sosuke rescues a little goldfish with a human face, and he names her Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, another celeb sibling).
Because she is the child of wizard Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) and a goddess (Cate Blanchett) who appears to be the mother of the seas, Ponyo is a magical creature. And since she has tasted human blood — Sosuke cut his hand freeing her from a jar — Ponyo has the ability to turn herself into a human being. While Fujimoto tries to keep her under the ocean with him, her love for Sosuke (to say nothing of her new-found taste for ham) makes her transform into a little girl so she can live on the surface.
The story gets confusing at this point — the seas rise, because apparently Ponyo’s transformation has thrown off the balance of nature and made the moon move closer to Earth — but the charming character interplay and the heroics and determination of its young protagonists make “Ponyo” an exhilarating experience even if the script starts going off the rails. (It’s unclear if something was lost in translation, although the English-language adaptation was written by “E.T.” scribe Melissa Mathison.)
Like “Spirited Away” and “Totoro,” “Ponyo” gives us a child hero who rises to the occasion when everything around is chaos; not that the adults aren’t interesting as well — Fey’s Lisa has her moments of self-doubt, but her love for Sosuke and Ponyo and her determination to come to the aid of others make her an ideal movie mom. Young Jonas and Cyrus make the protagonists realistically serious and silly without ever getting precious or precocious about it, and the exceptional voice cast also includes Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin as a trio of outspoken ladies who live in the senior citizen center where Lisa works.
The real star of the film, of course, is Hayao Miyazaki’s visionary artwork. One of the last of the ink-and-paint animators in world cinema, he once again creates a hallucinatory yet kid-friendly world that’s like nothing else you’ll see on the screen. He’s shown his love for airships and flying in classics like “Castle in the Sky,” “Porco Rosso” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and he brings that same eye to the undersea world, giving us fantastical fishy creatures and wildly imaginative ships. (Fujimoto’s four-finned submarine looks like a mini-whale.)
Miyazaki’s mix of fantastical narrative, visual grandeur and another great score by composer Joe Hisaishi (you’ll have the “Ponyo, Ponyo, Ponyo, fishy in the sea…” song stuck in your head for days) makes for another unforgettable entry in the filmography of one of the world’s great directors, animated or otherwise. “Ponyo” is one last summertime treat for kids before they get stuck going back to school.
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