Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
(2009, G, 103 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Ponyo is so jubilantly visual that to put it in words is almost a waste of letters. A succession of still images might be a better review than I could write, so I’ll forego descriptions of specific scenes and tell you simply that famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) has a richly populated imagination and puts it on the screen in big, colorful bursts of originality; it’s a fair assumption that most of what’s in Ponyo had never been seen, or maybe even thought of, before he envisioned it. It’s a joy simply to be absorbed in its pictures.

The plot is a little goofy, a slightly over-thought fairy tale with more exposition than it needs, but it’s whimsical and charming. It begins with Ponyo (voiced by Noah Lindsey Cyrus), a goldfish who leaves her home and finds herself in the care of five-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), with whom she forms an immediate bond. Her father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), used to be human until he a magical enchantment allowed him to live in the sea, and her mother, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), is some kind of goddess of the ocean. Ponyo longs to be human, but it may throw the entire planet’s ecosystem into chaos.

The story has an environmentalist bent, not as heavy-handed as Happy Feet or Avatar, but not quite as transcendent as WALL-E. Mankind’s treatment of the ocean is an underlying theme, but ultimately less important than the relationship between Ponyo and Sosuke, which is simple and sweet, and the animation, which is not simple at all but sumptuously alive.