Animated ‘Ponyo’ bursts with splendid visuals

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 3, 2009 5:30pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The Oscar-winning animator Hiyao Miyazaki goes his own way. So if he wants to make a movie about a multi-level castle that walks on legs or a mysterious diner where the food turns people into (literal) pigs, he does.

For that matter, if he wants to continue making hand-drawn animation in a world where computer work rules, well, he does that, too.

Having scored worldwide hits with the plots above (“Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away,” respectively), Miyazaki now turns to a marvelous subject for his talent: the sea.

In a glorious dreamlike opening, we meet a curious little goldfish who breaks away from her school and hitches a ride to shore. Adopted by an equally curious boy named Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), she’s dubbed Ponyo.

Now it is entirely consistent with Miyazaki’s bendable universe that this goldfish might mutate into an actual little girl, who will be friends with Sosuke as a tsunami rolls into his town.

This transformation displeases Ponyo’s father, a once-human sea god (Liam Neeson), who apparently summons up the storm to reclaim his daughter. There’s also a watery goddess or something, voiced (somehow inevitably) by Cate Blanchett.

“Ponyo” succeeds on pretty much every level (well, except maybe the cornball music). The animation is beautiful, and the humor is easy and civilized, especially in scenes with Sosuke and his patient mother (Tina Fey). (Sosuke’s sea captain father, voiced by Matt Damon, is out at sea.)

Miyazaki’s movies are always full of wild ideas and splendiferous to look at, but if anything, “Ponyo” has more irresistible forward motion and a cleaner story line than many of his films. It slips into a groove of pure enjoyment.

And those ideas: How cool is it to look down below the surface of the flooded town and see the sharks and squids swimming along the paved road, or to watch as the individual waves of the ride creep up the shoreline, grunting.

At the height of the storm Ponyo is repeatedly glimpsed running full steam along the back of a giant fish on top of the water, giggling away.

I think this might be one of the giddiest images from any animated film ever made, with Miyazaki celebrating Ponyo’s most primal kind of delight. His movies embody that feeling.

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