The great Japanese master of animation Hayao Miyazaki has been raising the stakes on his work for years. He is best known for his gorgeous, good-hearted children’s films like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), but his most recent films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle grew more elaborate in scale, more nuanced in design and darker in spirit. The new Ponyo—the full Japanese title translates to Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea—instead dials back. The artwork appears simpler, looking more like line drawings than detailed sketches, and the story is lighter. Rather than facing fearsome demons, Ponyo is really about a rather simple quest for love.
In a story loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, five-year-old Sosuke (voiced in the English-language release by Frankie Jonas) finds a very odd fish, with a face, near his house on the cliff by the sea. He names her “Ponyo” but loses her back into the sea. It turns out that she’s the daughter of a kind of wizard (Liam Neeson) who is charged with keeping the oceans in balance. Since she has had a taste of human love, Ponyo wants to go back. She re-emerges as a full-fledged girl (Noah Cyrus) but arrives during a huge, supernatural storm. Plus, there is one final test to make sure she can remain in human form. Tina Fey provides the voice of Lisa, Sosuke’s mother, whose fierce temper and unquenchable spirit prove helpful.
A good number of Miyazaki’s fans will be disappointed by what looks like a step back, but the relaxed simplicity of the new film eventually works its effortless magic. Miyazaki is still a master of space and movement, and some of the underwater footage here is as spectacular as anything you’ve ever seen, though the quicker pace forgoes some of the director’s trademark pauses for breathing or meditation. A major drawback is the official Disney-sanctioned casting of the insufferable Cyrus and Jonas children, who also sing a perfectly dreadful song during the closing credits. Parents who wind up seeing Ponyo more than once are forewarned to leave (or plug their ears) just after the final fade-out.