Year: 2001
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Kathleen Kennedy/Frank Marshall
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Betty White

Studio Ghibli dropped the ball with the disappointed Tales From Earthsea because it was a mere fantasy story, with none of the distinctive visual hallmarks and wacky ideas that made prior films so good.

Writer/director Miyazaki is back on top again with this beautiful, whimsical riff on the Pinocchio myth about a little fish that wants to be human after finding love with a young boy.

Little Ponyo is washed up on a beach near a gorgeous, hilly fishing town where five-year-old Sosuke finds and takes care of her. But Ponyo is no ordinary fish - she's one of the daughters of a mythical god (Neeson) who oversees the balance of life in the ocean. As long as Ponyo's loose, the world is threatened.

Sosuke is a handful for his loving but exasperated mother Lisa (Fey) as she awaits her husband's return from a fishing trip, and her life isn't going to get any easier by Ponyo's arrival.

With the world out of balance, the moon is drawn closer to earth and Ponyo's father sends the ocean off in search for his daughter, resulting in a huge storm that swamps the town. But Ponyo won't give up her dream, and when Lisa is cut off in an old age care centre, Sosuke leads Ponyo to search for them.

In Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, several sequences gave the film its beautiful dreamlike quality, like the train ride through the shallow water in a drowned world stretching in all directions. It was simple but fantastical, and Ponyo is full of such sequences.

The visuals really take off the morning after the storm, when the water has risen right to Sosuke's door. Scenes of he and Ponyo driving his little powerboat across the surface while fish and sea creatures swim among the forest and the surface of streets below them are striking.

And that's not taking into account the animation style in general. Studio Ghibli's rich style is a welcome change from the pixel-perfect output of Dreamworks Animation or Pixar.

But, as Hollywood studios relentlessly try to convince us, the first step is the script, and there are so many ideas the kid in you thinks are so cool it'd be a wonderful film no matter what the style.

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