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By Mark Fulton | July 26, 2009

Hayao Miyazaki, like the best directors, transfixes viewers in the moment and guides them under his spell. Vibrant colors merge, elegantly mutate, while imagination spills across the screen in a bold, undeniable presence. There were several moments where vivid images held me in awe during this closing entry of the Los Angeles Film Festival. I must admit, it’s so rare that my analytical abilities shut up and I get sucked in. As with all great cinema, this demands to be seen on the largest screen possible.

Sosuke lives with his Mom in their lighthouse home. Dad is at sea. One day, he finds a unique looking fish on the shore. He takes it to school. Due to the fish licking an accidental cut on his thumb, the fish turns into a little girl. Eventually the girl-fish is taken back to sea by her father (Liam Neeson in the English voice dub). These first fifteen or twenty minutes are dry, aside from the opening underwater sequence. I was nervous that Miyazaki’s magic touch was gone. Then from the underwater origins of a typhoon and onward, Miyazaki’s creativity bursts with his distinctive whimsy.

The fish girl, named Ponyo by Sosuke, eventually comes back to the lighthouse in human form. There’s much humor from Ponyo’s adjustments to being human. Sosuke’s mother returns to the nursing home where she works. Most of the later half involves Sosuke and Ponyo trying to reunite with her, most memorably journeying in a transformed toy boat. But plot falls by the wayside when held in Miyazaki’s majestic art rapture.

Naturally, Miyazaki’s biggest competition when comparing Ponyo to other works is himself. He doesn’t capture the physical movement of children brilliantly like in “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Spirited Away.” Nonetheless, there’s authenticity to Ponyo’s young girl skittishness. Sosuke’s moves are balanced and sturdy, reflecting his character’s maturity for a five-year-old. Some plot points seem vague. But as I previously said, I might have been too enamored by the imagery to follow.

In the context of Miyazaki’s body of work, this film rates four stars. From the perspective of anything you’ll see in a theatre this year, it’s rates even higher. I feel like I need a second viewing for full absorption.

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