Movies: Ponyo * * * *
(G, limited release)
Veteran Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki has delighted international audiences before, most particularly with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which won an Oscar.
He's at it again in Ponyo, a typically esoteric and imaginative take on Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid. In this case, the mermaid is a goldfish called Ponyo, who decides she wants to be a little girl after she's plucked from the sea by a five-year-old boy called Sosuke.
In an underlying plot of positively labyrinthine complexity, Ponyo's father is a kind of grumpy sea sorcerer who detests mankind because of what they're doing to the seas and wants nothing whatever to do with them. But Ponyo's mother is a sea goddess, and her daughter has something of her spirit and curiosity. Ponyo has special powers, and when she comes on to land she's able to turn herself into a little girl in order to play with Sosuke. But her transformation is only temporary, and she keeps turning fishy again at the most awkward moments. Her father, meanwhile, is furious at his daughter's defection, and launches a terrible storm at the Japanese shore.
An all-star cast including Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin has been assembled for the English-language version, but the real star of this show is Miyazaki and his studio's fluid and absorbing animations.
As I mentioned, he lays it on a bit thick with the eco back story, but the playful underwater animations are delightful, as is the storm which looks and feels like a Hokusai painting come to life.