LOS ANGELES - If you're 5 years old, or under the influence of some sort of hallucinogenic drug, "Ponyo" is probably awesome. Clearly, these are the ideal scenarios in which to watch the latest animated fantasy from Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki.
For everyone else, though, "Ponyo" will seem beautiful but surprisingly boring: a children's film that's at once overly simplistic and needlessly nonsensical. The hand-drawn images can be wondrous and inventive as they are in all of Miyazaki's films, but this story of a goldfish who longs to be a little girl lacks the sophisticated depth and engaging weirdness of his most acclaimed and best-known work, such as the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" and the Oscar-nominated "Howl's Moving Castle."
It feels safe - and that extends to the casting in this English-language version. Rather than playing in Japanese with subtitles, "Ponyo" is coming to a multiplex near you with a team of all-stars voicing the characters. (Pixar Animation guru John Lasseter is among the co-directors and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" writer Melissa Mathison wrote the translated screenplay.)
It might have been easier to immerse ourselves in Miyazaki's story, inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Little Mermaid," if it featured unknown actors rather than Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett. Exceedingly capable as they are, they also remind you of their stardom with every word. With Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman serving as a sort of Greek chorus at a senior centre, it's hard not to think about the meatier, smarter, more daring material we've had the pleasure of watching these women work with before.
Meanwhile, Ponyo is voiced with girlish enthusiasm by Noah Cyrus, Miley's younger sister, with the Jonas Brothers' younger sibling Frankie (otherwise known as the "Bonus Jonas") playing Sosuke, the boy she befriends on land.
Being an inquisitive and playful little fish, Ponyo sneaks away from the underwater lair of her wild-haired wizard father, Fujimoto (voiced by Neeson, though the character looks distractingly like Phil Spector), who fights the damage humans do to the ocean. Once she reaches the shore of a remote Japanese village, she meets Sosuke, a lonely and serious boy who lives in a cottage atop a hill with his mother (Fey) and father (Damon), a sea captain who's rarely around.
Instantly smitten by Sosuke, Ponyo transforms herself into a person using the magic inside her and a drop of blood she licks from a cut on Sosuke's thumb. (This is one of the many leaps in logic in Miyazaki's fantastical world you're either going to go with or you're not. "Ponyo" handles it rather matter-of-factly.) In no time she's enjoying all the mundane joys of human life: a warm towel, a mug of tea and the food that becomes her obsession: ham.
But the ecstasy she experiences inspires her thousands of goldfish sisters to swim around with such frenzied energy, they cause a tsunami. Miyazaki depicts this torrent first as a golden burst of light, like the eruption of an underwater volcano. But then the storm churns and turns darker, more dangerous. Dark blue waves with eyes form over and over, leaping across each other with fierce momentum and eventually submerging the town. It's easily the highlight of the film.
From there, the pieces feel a bit scattered. Mom feels compelled to leave her son and the fish-girl home alone while she battles rain, winds and flooded roads to get back to the senior centre where she works: "You're only 5 but you're very smart," she tells Sosuke. Could she be the most neglectful mother ever?
Later, Sosuke must rise to a totally arbitrary challenge posed by Fujimoto and Ponyo's mother, an ethereal ocean goddess voiced by Blanchett. The fate of the planet, which is suddenly out of balance, is all that's at stake. Sure thing - no biggie for a little kid.
"Ponyo," a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated G. Running time: 100 minutes. Two stars out of four.
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