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Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, distributed by Disney and dubbed in English by the likes of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Noah Cyrus (little sister of Miley), and Frankie Jonas (little brother of the Jonas Brothers), further postpones his announced retirement three feature films ago, and appears to reverse the slippage of his hand-drawn purism into corner-cutting computer animation, reverting to a simpler, less congested style than that of Spirited Away and even more Howl’s Moving Castle. I myself might have been quicker and louder to acclaim him the prince of contemporary animators if I liked his drawing better — the doll-like Little Lulu faces in particular — and if his motion lacked a little less in fluidity. Granted the compensations are several and plenty: the imagination, the magic, the dream logic, the mundane minutiae, the sensitivity to nature. That last property is immediately on display with the plunge into a teeming underwater world dominated at first by jellyfish and soon turning up a school of human-headed wigglies identified eventually as goldfish, one of whom nurses an overwhelming urge to become head-to-toe human (which means, high on the list, to eat ham) and to escape the dominion of her inexplicably humanoid father, a red-haired, striped-coated androgynous submarine captain with raccoonish dark circles around his eyes: “If you could only remain innocent and pure forever.” Some lip service gets paid to the precarious ecological balance, but no narrative developments quite live up to the apocalyptic rhetoric. The threat level never climbs above Elevated, never darkens from Yellow to Orange or Red. A modest fairy tale of personal liberation (fashioned loosely after The Little Mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen), with its ambiguous father figures and idealized mothers, proves nevertheless to be compelling enough on its own; and the sustained climax rises sufficiently high with the coming of a typhoon, the slanting rain and bending wind, the swelling whalelike waves, the flooding of a landscape we have come to know well, the navigating of the roads by fish in place of cars, and the presto-change-o transformation of a toy boat into a serviceable little putt-putt to navigate the surface. The action goes on a good ways past what I am calling the climax, if indeed it is the climax, and into the calming influence of a giant sea goddess with undulating seaweedy hair. It is encouraging to see a children’s cartoon which, in contrast to the poke-in-the-eye 3-D ones of earlier this summer, relies on the weapons of charm and delicacy and lyricism, and feels no compulsion to pump up the volume, maximize the peril, prolong the agony, squeeze out every last drop of juice, perspiration, blood. It is no less encouraging to observe and to report that the children around me seemed rapt.

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