Even in a frantically evolving world of digital gimmickry and one-upmanship, the hand-drawn pleasures of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated epics have never been less than sophisticated and inimitably otherworldly. Beyond his rich, pastel-hued surrealism, the director is also a humanist storyteller who writes strong female characters and deals in environmentally conscious themes; not even Disney-sponsored dubbing can ruin his work. The only comparable bastion of toon integrity to his home base, Studio Ghibli, would be Pixar, in that both companies have produced fun for the whole family, not just cloying kiddie products about special-ops guinea pigs or whatever else sells lunch boxes.
Thus it’s peculiar that Ponyo, Miyazaki’s unexpectedly straightforward ode to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” seems to be aimed almost solely at the wee ones. Bored of living under the sea with her swankily dressed wizard dad (Neeson), a human-faced goldfish (Cyrus) surfaces and meets a curious five-year-old boy named Sosuke (Jonas), who gives her that eponymous name. Offered a taste of humankind, Ponyo transmogrifies into a little girl, but her love is tested as she throws the human habitat out of whack: The moon descends, frightening tsunamis are stirred, and dark, burbling waves turn into eellike fish. (Like the Brothers Grimm, Miyazaki has never shied away from scaring children while spinning them yarns.) What held in the animator’s previous films as eccentrically multifaceted dream logic comes off for once as a series of non sequiturs—but really, why complain while sucking on an Everlasting Gobstopper of eye candy?