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Allow me to preface my review by saying that I am not a disciple of Miyazaki. I have seen part of Spirited Away and have a definite urge to see more, but I have seen none of his classics in their entirety. In fact, I am an anime neophyte. My experience with the medium pretty much begins and ends with the fact that I've seen Akira.

However, I can also say that, even to someone unfamiliar with Japanese animation, Ponyo is a visual treat that likely defies and exceeds the expectations you may have for a Disney-sponsored import about a magical transforming fish princess.

Ponyo was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a legend in the animation world who was also behind the 1997 import Princess Mononoke and the 2002 Academy Award winner, Spirited Away. The story of Ponyo is based in part on the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Little Mermaid. (Yes, the same one that Disney used to help re-launch the animated musical.)

The titular Ponyo (Noah Cyrus) is a magical fish-girl who sneaks out of the care of her father, an underwater sorcerer voiced by Liam Neeson, who was once human but now tends the sea from his magical submarine. She finds her way toward land, where she ends up stuck in a bottle after a close call with a dredger, and is rescued by 5-year-old Sosuke (Frankie "Bonus" Jonas), with whom she instantly falls in love. She ends up being taken back to the sea by her father, but not before she gains the ability to transform completely into a human.

I could say more, but the structure of Ponyo lends itself more to the mood of discovery and wonder as Ponyo learns about humans and their world, and Susuke and his mom, Lisa (Tina Fey), learn more about Ponyo.

The charm of Ponyo is that it is drenched in a spirit of wonder, discovery, and general cuteness, not to mention the high-quality animation and beautifully imaginative imagery. Indeed the art and imagination of Ponyo are its highlights. Miyazaki creates a world where the fantastic and the realistic creatively, beautifully, and believably occupy the same space.

For example, early in the movie, after Sosuke evades a series of waves (sent by Ponyo's father) that seemed to be coming right for him after finding Ponyo, he shrugs it off with, "That was weird." This is the first clue that the fantastic and strange are to be accepted in this world just as much as the mundane. From the fish-shaped water spirits Ponyo rides to land on, to old ladies who occupy the local senior center, everything is given equal opportunity to be a source of wonderment and interest.

The equality in treatment between fantastic events and ordinary events ends up being a focus of the movie, which is interesting to look back on once you realize that you haven't been so engrossed watching the preparation of a meal since you were a kid.

The wonder-at-the-world focus can catch you off guard, as the pace of the film is very relaxed. There is an issue that the main characters are working to resolve, but there's never a feeling of being in a huge rush to get to a solution. Sure the moon is moving closer to the earth and drawing the water level so high it's right outside the door of our cliff-side home, but we've also got ham and instant noodles, and that's pretty important, too.

The sole complaint about the movie would be that the ending just fizzles out. There's no big conflict, event, or test like what you might usually expect from an animated movie. Instead, if you're not paying attention, you may miss exactly how they put the order of the natural world back into shape. I suppose this should be expected in a movie where everything from making tea to transformative magic is treated with the same amount of gravitas.

Despite its few flaws, Ponyo is an engaging, entertaining movie that doesn't need to get you worked up to get you engrossed. It's slow pace centered on discovery, wonder and play is as engaging and calming as a good aquarium. It's heavy on imagination and creativity and is a beautifully rendered piece of animation.

As an adult, I believe that there is a different standard that applies to movies for children. Here the question should be: Would I be upset if my son wanted to watch this movie every single day? I can confidently say that I would not mind watching part of this movie every day. This is a quality piece of art that deserves to beat the crap out of G-Force, so grab your kids, and take them to Ponyo, something that will have them entertained and giggling without the use of the word "hizzok".

Matt Sameck

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