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The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki are strikingly designed and animated, emotionally engaging, and utterly unpredictable. Ponyo is a children’s fable that leaves most American cartoon features at the starting gate: no formula storytelling here, no wisecracking dialogue. Ponyo is a fish who longs to be human and manages to insinuate herself into the lives of…

a five-year-old boy and his mother who live near the sea. But that simplification of the story can’t begin to describe the wild, wondrous adventure that Miyazaki has in store for viewers, young and old.

In many ways, the word that best describes this movie is weird. Although it is superficially inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki draws on elements of Japanese culture (including folk tales) that Americans like me aren’t familiar with, and that accounts in part for the truly foreign nature of his work…but I suspect it has much more to do with his unique imagination. Time and again, in films like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Porco Rosso, and My Neighbor Totoro, he integrates genuinely bizarre ideas into his storytelling and lures us into the world he creates onscreen. He is an enchanter, and his latest movie is not to be missed.

Incidentally, John Lasseter and his colleagues at Pixar are longtime admirers of Miyazaki, and over the past decade they have invested great care in preparing the American versions of his films. Ponyo is voiced by an all-star cast including Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Betty White and in the youthful leading roles, Noah Cyrus (Miley’s younger sister) and Frankie Jonas (youngest of the Jonas Brothers). But they are working here strictly as voice actors and not imposing their personalities on the characters: vive la différence!

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