Within seconds, "Ponyo" spirits audiences away on a flight and dive of creativity that ranges from the moon to a deep blue sea streaked with purple, gray and gold. It's like an international aquarium of the imagination. It teems with fascinating creatures. It conjures a persuasive threat that conflicting forces in the water and on land will go out of balance and destroy the world as we know it.
But "Ponyo" is in some ways the most subtle of all ecological movies. It takes in the human trash that litters a marine paradise. But the movie also draws its characters into an elastic circle of life that vitalizes man and fish alike.
Best of all, "Ponyo" never ceases to be a genuine odyssey in short pants. It's fundamentally about childhood curiosity and courage as embodied in a small boy named Sosuke. He mistakes a fish girl for a goldfish, names her Ponyo - and inadvertently makes her fall in love with him and the whole human world.
The family dynamics are as memorable, individual and funny as the strokes of home-made magic that writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, the supreme master of hand-drawn animation, keeps pulling out of his hat. Sosuke's mother, Lisa, works in a senior citizens center (Sosuke goes to a kindergarten next door). They live together in a cliff house that allows them to swap signals with their beloved Koichi when this devoted but often-absent husband and father is skippering his ship at sea. Sosuke is an authentic 5-year-old, alternately brave and fragile, and Lisa is a terrific if somewhat reckless mom who admits to frustration with her husband and imbues her son with her own bold attack on life.
What's amazing about "Ponyo" is that Ponyo's relationship with her parents is just as compelling and believable - though her father, Fujimoto, is a potent underwater warlock who thinks he holds Earth's fate in his hands, and her mother, Gran Mamare, is a shape-changing divinity, who in one gasp-inducing sequence appears to Koichi as a goddess of mercy. Ponyo uses her own powerful magic to escape the bubble home Fujimoto has created for her and to transform herself into a frisky, generous girl the same age and height as Sosuke. Fujimoto worries that her metamorphosis will destabilize the planet and cause the waters to rise toward the moon - but Gran Mamare says it won't as long as Sosuke can prove he truly loves her.
Miyazaki may be the only animator in movie history who has been able, film after film and genre after genre, to realize complete idiosyncratic visions the way a writer-illustrator like Maurice Sendak does in books like "Where the Wild Things Are" and "In the Night Kitchen." The wizardry of "Ponyo" lies in the way you follow Miyazaki's fluid compositional lines as they weave together the disparate universes of a boy and a fish girl and thread in and out of their souls.
Fable, emotion and psychology merge in a fairy-tale brew that will hold children rapt and engage the better angels of adults. Fujimoto himself is a walking psychedelic effect, clothed as if from Carnaby Street and ear-ringed like a pirate. He's always carrying or operating paraphernalia as ornate as Captain Nemo's.
Miyazaki works passion and zealotry into the fiber of this character, and intrigue into everything he does - such as alter and enlarge dozens of Ponyo's little sisters into fish as big as waves. (Ponyo can do that, too). There's something ineffably wonderful about the way Fujimoto turns these waves into a tsunami straight out of a quarrelsome crone's prophecy. Everything in "Ponyo" is simultaneously supernatural and sensible.
The whole American voice cast is beyond reproach, including Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as Sosuke, but the true audio star here is Liam Neeson, whose virtuoso inflections turn Fujimoto's spells into poetry. In visual terms, that's what Miyazaki does in the entire movie.
"Spread," a romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher, was not screened for critics.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1:43 minutes
Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett (Gran Mamare), Noah Cyrus (Ponyo) and Matt Damon (Koichi).
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.