Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
I'll start by telling you, at point-blank, that the visuals alone are worth the cost of admission to see Ponyo, the latest film from Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. The backgrounds are often rendered in an almost child-like manner, with crayons and loose shapes; it's stunning to see. The animation itself is perhaps the best of Miyazaki's career; if it's second to anything, it's second only to the visual splendour of Princess Mononoke, and that, without exaggeration, is one of the most beautiful movies in all of cinema, animated or otherwise. So, then, it looks damn purdy.
What of the story? As with every Miyazaki film, it requires from the audience a certain amount of patience; the world doesn't explain itself to you, so much as you come to terms with the idea that this film's reality works in such and such a way, and you might as well accept that. Each of Miyazaki's movies has required such an effort, if you can call it that, from the audience, and each has required it more than the last, but Howel's Moving Castle, Miyazaki's last picture and arguably one of his weakest, seems to have represented his more esoteric tendencies at their peaks. In short, less diffused wording, Ponyo is simply easier to follow, and easier to enjoy.
The story is sort of about a boy who finds a mermaid, and then they have an adventure together. That's an awful, awful misrepresentation, and it doesn't relate to you the charm, the humour, and the beauty at the core of it, but I don't do summaries, really, so I won't try. What you need to know going in is that this is as magical a story as Miyazaki has written, and it's the spiritual heir to his masterful My Neighbor Totoro, which is to say it is his second "children's" film. That is a comment meant not in a belittling sense; a young child is unlikely to find Nausicäa all that entertaining, and Spirited Away could even frighten them, but Ponyo is adorable enough, and colourful enough (Oh, sweet merciful Jesus, the colours), and relatable enough, with both main characters being five, that younger members of the studio audience will enjoy it just as much as the bigger ones. I should know; there were a number of young'ns at the show I went to, and, if the sounds they made were any indication, they loved it. One girl, in fact, very helpfully pointed out rather loudly that "Ponyo is tired." It, uh, it was funnier if you were there.
Miyazaki is a brilliant man, no question. He can bring out the magic in anything, and he knows well enough to let it flourish. After the relative misstep of Howel's Moving Castle, and the participatory requirements of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Ponyo is as purely enjoyable a film as Miyazaki has ever made, and it takes all the best qualities of his canon- the magic, the humour, the beauty- and presents them in their simplest form. One of his best films, and that's no small accomplishment.