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TERRY GROSS, host:

"Ponyo," an animated film from Japan by the same filmmaker and studio which made the Academy Award-winning anime "Spirited Away," is now on screens in this country in an English-language version distributed by Walt Disney. It features the voices of Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas of the Jonas brothers and Noah Cyrus, Miley's younger sister, who does the voice of Ponyo. Our film critic John Powers has a - that is, David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" is a very loose adaptation of "The Little Mermaid," and it's more straightforward and kiddie-friendly than such multilayered masterpieces as his "Spirited Away." But in some ways the movie's simplicity lets you see the director's greatness more clearly. It's about an event that throws the natural world into an uproar, collapsing the boundaries between earth and sky, fish and human. True love must save the world.

And yeah, it's corny, but it's not fatuous or hypocritical. We constantly see movies that contradict their own messages, celebrations of mavericks that are slavishly formulaic, testaments to the power of selfless love that are suffused with snobbery and narcissism. But when Miyazaki makes a film that decries the threats to the natural world from human selfishness and pins the hope for survival on a kind of feminine oversoul that connects us all, the message is right there in the animation. In its most startling frames, the title character a fish who turns into a little girl to be with a boy named Sosuke runs on top of the turbulent waves during a fierce typhoon, and those waves are suddenly huge dark fish that dissolve back into waves and then again into fish and again into waves as the girl is carried forward.

I won't diminish Miyazaki's art by pinning it down with a label like pantheism, or invoking the Buddha. The point is that nothing in Miyazaki's universe ever stops transforming. In trees and stones and ripples on the waves, there seem to be spirits tucked away ready to turn what you think you see, the visible world, into something else entirely.

Before I get too high-flown, let me say that Ponyo is unsullied by Disney's English-language casting - much maligned on the Internet - of Miley Cyrus's little sister as Ponyo and one of the dread Jonas brothers as Sosuke. The biggest star to lend his voice, Liam Neeson, has gravely splendid pipes as Ponyo's father, a once-human wizard who lives underwater and despises humankind for polluting the planet.

(Soundbite of movie "Ponyo")

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): (As Fujimoto) The whole world is out of balance.

(Soundbite of waves)

Mr. NEESON: (As Fujimoto) Ponyo, you have to trust me. You're the only one who can save the planet. Do it now. Do it.

(Soundbite of waves)

EDELSTEIN: The early scenes, before the narrative kicks in, recall Peter Max's "Yellow Submarine," with the father in a blue candy-stripe jacket and flowing hair, acting as a kind of undersea ringmaster as little fish with waifish faces circle around him. The father keeps his precious daughter in a bubble. He's afraid she'll be carried to the surface. But she is anyway, on a passing jellyfish. And before he can rescue her, the wee fish gets a sip of human blood and begins her evolution into a girl.

The natural world goes mad as the moon descends and oceans rise, and it falls to young Sosuke to make things right by proving his love for Ponyo is true. Even with its radiant colors and Joe Hisaishi's score an improbably lush mixture of Disney's "Snow White," Wagner and Shostakovich "Ponyo" has the potential to be insipid. But Miyazaki proves why two-dimensional, hand-drawn animation will always be more thrilling than 3-D or stop-motion. It doesn't even need to pretend to be bound by the laws of physics. The borders between form and content, flesh and spirit, are magically fluid.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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