Filled with ancient sea creatures and gurgling wave monsters, "Ponyo" marks the latest animated film from Japanese writerdirector Hayao Miyazaki (the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away"). Released through Walt Disney Studios with an American voice cast, it's the story of a goldfish princess, Ponyo (Noah Cyrus), who falls for a little boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas).
Hand-drawn in the limited but evocative anime tradition that Miyazaki has perfected, "Ponyo" finds its most memorable moments not undersea but in the everyday details of Sosuke's life. His mother, Lisa (Tina Fey), is a modern working parent whose sailor husband (Matt Damon) is often away. Lisa drops off her son at school, rushes to work, lugs groceries, cooks dinner. She also puts love into every meal - even when it's just instant ramen - and Miyazaki makes it visible.
Like much anime, "Ponyo" features some very peculiar imagery (Ponyo's prehensile human toes, for instance) and leaps in logic. But even when the film feels murky - the environmental subtext seems like an afterthought - Miyazaki's painterly eye keeps things afloat. Ponyo's tyrannical father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson), looks like Friedrich's Wanderer come to life; her mother, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), is an Art Nouveau vision. Call it "The Little Mermaid" through decidedly non-Disney eyes.