A childlike “Hello Kitty” quality informs the animation of Ponyo, a G-rated fable from Hayao Miyazaki. The 68-year-old Japanese master of old-school 2-D simplifies his textured style for Ponyo, as if he wants to craft a film for his grandkids’ generation. Compared to the fine details and rich colors of Miyazaki masterpieces such as Spirited Away, Ponyo presents emblematic pastels and objects that look like bath toys. At times, Ponyo resembles wallpaper for children’s rooms come to life.
It’s worth getting used to Ponyo’s juvenile visual style to appreciate the film’s dreamy sense of wonder. Tenuously connected to The Little Mermaid, Ponyo depicts 5-year-old Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), a boy who lives in a Japanese port community and one day rescues a magical fish-girl he names Ponyo. Ponyo (Noah Cyrus, amusing but occasionally shrill) proves to be a decidedly odd creation: Above the neck, she looks like a big-eyed, tow-headed toddler, but below, she’s a sea creature whose rippling body resembles the red dress of Little Lulu from old comic strips.
Ponyo falls in love with Sosuke. She transforms into a human girl to be with him, to the horror of her overprotective father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson). The grumpy sea wizard maintains the balance of the aquatic and terrestrial worlds, and looks like a cross between Austin Powers and the wizard Howl of Miyazaki’s previous film Howl’s Moving Castle. Despite her father’s objections, Ponyo stays with Sosuke and discovers such earthly delights as ham and candles, although her presence turns the natural order topsy-turvy.
In the wrong hands, Ponyo could be cloying and insipid, but Miyazaki maintains respect for his characters and a thoughtful pace even throughout the film’s bizarre set pieces. During a storm, Sosuke and his mother drive along a winding coastal road while Ponyo runs next to them in the waves, leaping atop the backs of giant fish, all to the strains of a Wagner-style soundtrack. Later in the film, Ponyo and Sosuke paddle over the town’s flooded neighborhoods and see prehistoric fish swimming above the lawns and roads. The flood provides an occasion of surreal serenity, like an unplanned holiday. The effect makes Ponyo the opposite of the disaster tragedies that followed Hurricane Katrina.
Grown-ups can quibble about the film’s peculiar magical rules or point out that Sosuke’s loving mother (voiced by Tina Fey) has a reckless streak bordering on negligence. Ponyo builds to a test of love, but given that the young heroes are so sweet and innocent, the emotional stakes seem fairly low. Overall, though, Ponyo shows so much heart and generosity to so many different kinds of characters, including Japanese sailors and a gaggle of elderly ladies, that minor criticisms wash away. Ponyo teems with such joyous creativity that Miyazaki’s cup runneth over.