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Fish out of water

(animation. Featuring the voices of Liam Neeson, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Betty White and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. cert General)

Directed by spirited away's hayao miyazaki, Ponyo is basically Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid with an eco message and a very cute, hyperactive redhead. Miyazaki creates stunning animation and the opening sequence here is one of the most beautiful things I've seen on film. It's a magical and wistful wander through the ocean with a perfect musical score. In fact, it's so gorgeous, the film that follows, although good, proves to be bit of a let down.

In those first frames, we meet Fujimoto, a strange lady-man voiced by Liam Neeson. Human once, he's now a guardian of the ocean and father (how, exactly, is not explained) to lots and lots of tiny goldfish-like creatures. One of these is Ponyo. Possessed with an explorer's spirit, Ponyo sneaks away and ends up on a beach, stuck head-first in a jar. She's found by five-year-old Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas, the younger of The Jonas Brothers).

He rescues her from the jar and when she licks a cut on his finger, Ponyo (now voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley's little sister) unleashes her ability to become human.

It's the start of a firm friendship between the two, but their friendship has far-reaching effects. A half-transformed Ponyo is taken back home by her father, leaving Sosuke distraught. Ponyo is determined to return to him and when she drinks a magic potion, she's transformed into a little girl and leaves the sea to be with her pal.

But the natural balance of things is thrown out of whack because Ponyo is away from her world, so her desperate dad tries to bring her home, with the help of some really creepy waves (they have eyes). As his repeated attempts to catch his daughter fail, the problem gets worse. The moon is pulled close to the earth and a monster tsunami threatens Sosuke's village, putting everyone in danger.

Alongside some beautiful animation, Ponyo features lots of famous voices. As well as those above, there's Matt Damon, providing the voice for Sosuke's dad, who's away at sea, Betty White, of Golden Girls fame, is one of the care-home residents and an ethereal Cate Blanchett pops up, too (doing an impression of her turn as Galadriel in Lord of the Rings). * * *