You might think “Ponyo,” Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s new animated film, is the anti-“Up.” That recent Disney/Pixar smash was about the joys of soaring into the clouds; “Ponyo,” also distributed by Disney, makes its home in the sea. Where “Up” concerned itself with the grown-up problems of an elderly widower, “Ponyo” stays resolutely in the point of view of its 5-year-old hero, to the point that adults might worry it might not be for them.
So what do the two movies have in common, besides a Disney logo? They’re both masterpieces, and they both draw from deep wells of beauty and wisdom to offer intense moviegoing pleasure to the very young, the very old and everyone in between.
Ponyo, a magical goldfish (voiced by Noah Cyrus, sister of Miley), takes a trip to the surface and befriends 5-year-old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger brother of the musical Jonases), who lives with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) in a house on a mountain peak overlooking the harbor. Later, when Ponyo sprouts legs and escapes her father, a god of the sea (Liam Neeson), to return to Sosuke, the balance of nature is endangered and mountainous waves inundate the boy’s entire island.
As in all of Miyazaki’s movies, the fantasy elements can’t obscure a deep commitment to closely observed realism. Sosuke is as authentic a 5-year-old as you’re ever going to see in a film. Introducing Ponyo to the human world, Sosuke teaches her How Things Work with an expert’s pride every parent will recognize. Lisa, too, is a terrific character, a mother who’s no saint but who loves her son fiercely.
And Ponyo? She’s the kind of bizarre character who would never appear in an American children’s movie but whom American children will find instantly hilarious. Ponyo also will appeal to parents exhausted by the constant Disney-led drumbeat of Princessdom. Unlike her clear antecedent, Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” Ponyo doesn’t care how she looks, nor is she respectful or deferential. She doesn’t wait for true love to give her a voice or make her human, but busts out of the undersea kingdom on her own. Wreaking havoc and spouting non sequiturs, she comes off as a mix of Ralph Wiggum from “The Simpsons” and the Tasmanian Devil.
From the raging storms that sweep the island to the calm undersea world, the visual glories of “Ponyo” feel hand-crafted, with colored-pencil lines visible in every frame. In a way, “Ponyo” really is the anti-“Up.” Pixar may have cornered the market on perfect computer animation and expertly calibrated storytelling, but “Ponyo” is a reminder of the messy pleasures of a film that’s the product of a single vision.
“Ponyo” isn’t Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film — that would be a tall order in a 30-year feature career that includes the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” — but his beautiful, quirky fable has magic other children’s movies can’t touch.