- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

After the sheer artistry of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous efforts — beautifully animated movies like “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” — “Ponyo” is something of a disappointment. Leaving aside the plot deficiencies and storytelling awkwardness, Mr. Miyazaki’s latest simply doesn’t look good.

There’s a certain amount of weirdness to be expected from any film bearing the anime stamp, and “Ponyo” is no exception: Loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” “Ponyo” tells the tale of a goldfish who falls in love with a human boy and wishes to become a girl so they can spend the rest of their lives together.

This is practically cinema verite for Mr. Miyazaki: “Spirited Away” involved one little girl’s quest to escape a haunted amusement park and keep her name from being stolen, while “Howl’s Moving Castle” involved all manner of wizardry and whimsy too difficult to sum up here. But the animation was so compelling and involved in those movies that audiences were sucked in regardless of their weirdness.

“Ponyo” doesn’t have that crutch to lean on here. This isn’t to say that “Ponyo” is ugly; far from it. A few of the sequences — like the one in which Ponyo takes human form and runs along a tsunami wave that resembles a giant fish — are quite stunning. That said, the picture’s look is a step backward for the man who has come to define Japanese animation.

Because of “Ponyo’s” generally unimpressive animation, the plot problems that sometimes crop up in Mr. Miyazaki’s other films are more obvious here. Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus) is a juvenile fish who leaves her father, some sort of magical sea guardian (Liam Neeson) in order to experience the wider world. After getting caught in some human trash, Ponyo washes ashore into the loving arms of Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a sweet-natured 5-year-old.

The two grow attached to each other, and after tasting a drop of Sosuke’s blood, Ponyo begins to change into a human girl. Although her father tries to put a stop to the changes, he fails: Even magic is no match for hormones, it seems. Ponyo breaks free and heads for the surface, inadvertently ripping a hole in the fabric of space, or something to that effect.

It’s not clear exactly what happens next — Why are the tides rising? Why is the moon drawing close? How can Ponyo and Sosuke’s affection for each other stop it? Suffice it to say, the world is in grave danger, and only true love can set things right, or — again — something to that effect.

Young children will probably enjoy “Ponyo,” as it has a frenetic pace and an obvious joie de vivre, while their parents will find the occasional line to chuckle at. The voice work boasts an impressive coterie of A-listers — Cate Blanchette, Matt Damon and Tina Fey all voice characters — although the casting is sometimes a little off: Mr. Neeson’s American-Irish baritone doesn’t quite match his sea sorcerer character’s dandified androgyny.

★★

TITLE: “Ponyo”

RATING: G

CREDITS: Directed by Hayao

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

WEB SITE: http://disney.go.com/ponyo

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS