The hyperbole well tends to run dry when talking about Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese master animator whose films such as Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro feature an unbeatable mixture of noncloying messages, towering action set pieces, and, above all, gentle humanism. Ponyo, Miyazaki's first feature-length movie since 2004's Howl's Moving Castle, is, it must be said, several notches below his aforementioned masterworks, which makes it only, oh, super-duper wonderful. A loose retelling of The Little Mermaid, it makes big magic, seemingly effortlessly.
Beginning with an awe-inspiring sequence featuring all manner of hand-drawn undersea critters (Trilobites!), the story follows Ponyo, a goldfish princess who yearns to experience life above the waves, despite warnings from her sorcerer father that her actions will throw the world out of balance. Throughout, Miyazaki's patented combo of charming emotional beats and large-scale scenes of nature in chaos—check out that typhoon—remains intact, while the American vocal dub supervised by Pixar guru John Lasseter puts the likes of Liam Neeson and Tina Fey to good, nondistracting use. (Best of all is Cate Blanchett, who imbues her role as the Goddess of the Sea with plummy Marlene Dietrich tones.)
The spell cast by the film is so entrancing, honestly, that only later does one realize that the essential theme of sacrifice which runs through so many fairy tales is here almost entirely minimalized: The heroine moves between worlds with barely a hint of an internal struggle. Whether an oversight or a conscious decision to avoid alarming juvenile audiences, it makes the narrative feel a little slight. Such critical quibbling feels almost petty, though, when compared to the sheer, blissful amount of goodwill the film generates. Perhaps the best measure of Miyazaki's talents is this: When the screen briefly went black during the packed preview screening, it not only happened precisely during a scene where the electricity went out in the movie, but the majority of the kids in the audience stayed firmly in their seats. Dude's got powers.