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Review: "Ponyo"

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Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo isn't in the same league as the legendary Japanese animator's previous masterpieces (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro). But even minor Miyazaki towers over most feature-length cartoons aimed squarely at children (and children at heart).

A loose reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, Ponyo begins deep beneath the sea, where a wizard (voiced by Liam Neeson) with a rock-star mane and androgynous features monitors the delicate balance among nature's various factions.

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That balance is thrown askew when his daughter, a goldfish with a human face, sneaks away for a little exploration and becomes trapped inside a glass jar littering the ocean floor. The fish (voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley's little sister) is rescued by 5-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger sibling of the three famous Jonases), who plops the fish into a bucket of water, names it Ponyo and keeps it as a pet.

But after the wizard tracks down Ponyo and returns her to her underwater home, she decides she liked living above the sea better, so she magically sprouts arms and legs and returns to Sosuke, this time in the form of a little girl.

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The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki's previous films, Ponyo is written from a child's perspective and with a child's sense of logic. There's no point in trying to figure out, say, what exactly the wizard is doing on the ocean floor or how a fish could will itself into human form after licking a drop of blood off Sosuke's thumb.

Miyazaki's films take the unexplainable for granted, suggesting there's much more to the world than we humans realize, and to think otherwise is to miss out on the magic that exists around us. Although early scenes in Ponyo suggest ecological underpinnings (there's a lot of emphasis on the polluted condition of our seas), the story quickly abandons that theme, opting instead for pure fairy-tale surrealism.

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The Walt Disney Co. is doing its best to make U.S. audiences take note of Ponyo, which has already grossed $183 million around the world. The studio has rounded up an impressive voice cast to translate the film into English, including Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Sosuke's parents, Cate Blanchett as a goddess of the sea, and Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Cloris Leachman as the personable residents of a nursing home. It also is releasing the film on 800 screens - the widest U.S. opening to date for a Miyazaki film.

 American audiences haven't embraced the filmmaker with the enthusiasm of the rest of the world. Even though Spirited Away won the Best Animated Film Oscar in 2003, the movie only earned $10 million in the United States, compared to $264 million internationally, perhps because Miyazaki shuns computer-generated imagery in favor of old-school, two-dimensional pen-and-ink cartoons, with cruder animation and little photorealistic detail (what, no 3D either?).

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But Miyazaki's infinitely imaginative, lovingly rendered visions tickle the imagination in a way CGI cartoons can't. Ponyo is stuffed with the sort of indelible, fantastical images for which Miyazaki is revered: Ponyo running atop churning waves that look like giant fish; a city flooded by a micro typhoon as prehistoric creatures swim through its streets; barges and oil rigs piled high after the ocean level rises, and the moon begins to pull closer to Earth.

Even by Miyazaki standards, Ponyo makes less narrative sense than it should, and the pat ending is a bit of a letdown: The story doesn't reach a climax; it just stops. But the flat finale doesn't take away from the hypnotic spell the rest of the movie can weave on 5- or 50-year-olds. If you've never experienced a Miyazaki movie, here's your chance to try one. Come on in. The water's fine.

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Ponyo opens in South Florida on Friday, Aug. 14. Check out the film's super-cool Japanese website here.

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