It comes as no surprise that the man who started Pixar, John Lasseter, loves the films of Hayao Miyazaki, sometimes called the Disney of Japan--but unlike Pixar and Disney, Miyazaki's medium has always been cel animation, as meticulous as Pinocchio (1940), with an eye for the rhythms of nature--rain, flowing water, wind on a grassy field--and a willingness to work in bright pastels--especially in Ponyo (2008), the most accessible of his films for smaller children. As with most of his other films, Miyazaki invents a mythology for Ponyo, one related to a love for nature, but also--as in the sometimes deadly serious Princess Mononoke (1997) (his only PG-13-rated film)--recognizing humanity's place in nature, as problematic as it can be.
In Ponyo he imagines a kind of Father Nature of the sea, Fujimoto,* who disdains humanity and seeks only to fill the seas with as much life as he can draw from his alchemical vials. But he loses one of his (many many) goldfish "daughters," Ponyo, who makes it to land and becomes more or less human. I will not divulge too much plot; suffice it to say that, although elements of Ponyo might feel like Finding Nemo or The Little Mermaid--or the aforementioned Pinocchio--let alone any number of his other films, as always Miyazaki produces something original, with enough beauty and rushing action--and half-whimsical, half-hallucinatory sequences (the flooded town and boat trip makes for yet another of his unforgettable waking dreams)--to keep children's attention--a tricky feat these days.
At the same time, Ponyo once more explores a recurring motif in Miyazaki: the search for the parent, the child who waits for his or her family to return--but in the meantime also leaves, often on a quest to find a companion beyond the parents. Ponyo becomes a love story, and is told with such exuberant innocence (if that's possible) that all the other loves--the magician/scientist for the teeming life of the sea, the husband for the wife, the mother for the child, the child for the little old ladies in the nursing home (and their love for him)--weave together, all because Ponyo saw her chance and headed for land.
Generally, if one has never seen a Miyazaki film, the best advice is to begin with My Neighbor Totoro (1980) or the startling Spritied Away (2001)--my favorite; but Ponyo (aside from being only one of two Miyazaki titles on Instant Play) works well, again especially for the wee ones, as a glimpse into a world that shines somewhere adjacent to the one we know.
*Voiced in the English version by Liam Neeson; most of Miyazaki's English-dubbed films feature familiar voices--here the cast includes Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White.