By John M. Urbancich
If “Ponyo” isn’t the best animated film of the year, it certainly becomes the sweetest in the wise old hands of legendary Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for the infinitely darker “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki released his lovely little “Ponyo” a year ago in his native Japan where it became a huge hit.
Now it gets some magical vocal treatment here, with Disney/Pixar boss John Lasseter adding a slew of familiar English-speaking actors to a cast of characters that, thankfully, does not include any legitimate bad guys.
Though the universally popular writer/director loosely based his fable on the “The Little Mermaid” fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, it should not be confused with the Disney classic of the same name, even if it so obviously resembles it.
Of course, there is only one master filmmaker when it comes to hand-drawn anime, and Miyazaki’s easily embraced narrative and brilliant images clearly remain intact. One, featuring the title charmer running full speed across ocean waves on the backs of sea creatures, is among many moving pictures that become as memorable as it can get.
Like so many fictitious mermaids before her, Ponyo (who is actually a goldfish, a fish face already resembling an adorable little girl) desperately wants to become human and so starts the adventure by swimming away from her school of equally cute fish sisters and their deep-seated ocean home.
The eye-opening sequence also introduces us to their father, the colorful and mysterious-looking Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), a stern and potent spirit who obviously lets his favored Ponyo yank his fin tail farther than his other children could or would.
Anyway, Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, herself a little sis to teen superstar Miley Cyrus) eventually gets her head stuck in a water jar and is saved on shore by a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger bro to the tween-trending trio that also has strong Disney connections).
A deep bond beyond what could be called friendship develops between the lively youngsters and – voila! – a kind of kindergarten version of “Romeo and Juliet” is born. In fact, apparently nothing can keep Ponyo and Sosuke apart, including the former’s powerful dad, the latter’s caring, though concerned mom (Tina Fey), or even the violent weather that Miyazaki whips up in a series of environmentally rich situations.
One slight quibble: Since voices owned by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White dot the multihued landscape anyway, why not let the characters have English-sounding names? Sure, it’s a small world after all, but some of the Japanese monikers seem a bit cumbersome in an otherwise fast-flowing fantasy.
Regardless, the little ones will not notice and likely will learn a thing or three from such a persistently endearing movie. No surprise if parents find themselves smiling a lot, too.
Stars: The voices of Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman, Betty White
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Studio/Official Site: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/ponyo/
Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.
[John M. Urbancich has been reviewing movies and writing film features and celebrity profiles at Cleveland’s Sun Newspapers for 25 years. As a longtime member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, his work has been appearing on the Sun News website for more than a decade.]