Review in a Hurry: Japanese animation god Hayao Miyazaki returns to his roots with a tale that's more down-to-earth than the recent Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle. The result—dubbed into English with an all-star cast—is as irresistible as My Neighbor Totoro, but less furry and all wet.
The Bigger Picture: While taking a walk along a beach, 5-year-old Sosuke (voiced by Bonus Jonas Frankie Jonas) rescues a goldfish from a glass jar. The fish has a human face (much cuter than it sounds) and Sosuke decides a name is required: Ponyo. Although not quite a genie in a bottle, Ponyo's release sets forth a series of events, turning the sea inhabitant into a little girl (Noah Cyrus).
Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the story of a fish who wants to be human will be familiar to anyone who's seen the Disney classic. But whereas Ariel's journey was more the "sisters doin' it for themselves" variety, Miyazaki's is about the relationship between the matter-of-factness of magic and the joy of living in an ocean town.
Even a scene in which Sosuke and Ponyo take a toy boat through a village ravaged by a tsunami-like storm never feels menacing. With magic in place of harsh reality, the feeling is liberating.
These days, 2-D hand-drawn animation is virtually nonexistent, but Miyazaki's lush, detailed worlds demonstrate that not everything has to be done with computer animation. The centerpiece of the film, in which Ponyo runs across the waves of a storm, is breathtaking. The traditional lines that surround hand-drawn animation erupt onscreen as the ocean rushes along with tiny little Ponyo on top. Just as stop motion got a bump earlier in the year with Coraline, Ponyo (already global hit, with $165 million box office to date) hopefully will bring back an appreciation for 2-D.
Set in Japan, the names of the characters are Ponyo, Sosuke, Fujimoto, Koichi and um, Lisa. Lisa is voiced by Tina Fey, and though her name is kind of a weird choice, she fits right in next to Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon and Cloris Leachman, who were tapped to do the English dub under the direction of Pixar's own animation god John Lasseter.
Especially convincing is Miley Cyrus' little sis Noah as the titular tyke. Voicing anime asks for a certain kind of hyperexcited state, and Cyrus' energy is considerable. Case in point: Ponyo's enthusiasm for ham is pretty darn charming. And to keep things Disneyfied, the childlike wonder of a young Jonas brother as Sosuke is refreshing.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Again, this is not a grand epic journey like Miyazaki's recent efforts. Unfortunately, the last act treats the story like it is a grand adventure and never quite convinces.