Ponyo, an emotionally profound, visually thrilling animated reimagining of the classic fairy tale ''The Little Mermaid,'' is another opportunity for the smitten to state the obvious: The work of the legendary Japanese animation artist Hayao Miyazaki is both unmistakable and inimitable. Forget about Ariel, the romanticized, selectively sexualized Disney mermaid. Miyazaki, whose previous masterpieces include Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and the 2002 Academy Award winner Spirited Away, deepens the classic Hans Christian Andersen story so that it becomes a parable about keeping a planet in balance, and a vision of multigenerational love.
Employing traditional cel animation to produce a fireworks display of inventive imagery, Miyazaki's version skips lightly, sweetly, and firmly over gender fussiness to introduce the heroine Ponyo as a strong, robust, trusting, loving little fish in the sea. And when Ponyo falls in love with a little boy named Sosuke, she decides that what she wants most (much to the distress of her sorcerer father) is to become a little land-based girl. Not surprisingly, big-name fans of the animator lined up to voice the English-language version, among them Tina Fey as Sosuke's mother and Liam Neeson as Ponyo's ecology-minded father. (Listen, too, for Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, and Matt Damon.) Don't tell Walt Disney, but Hayao Miyazaki really holds the keys to the magic kingdom. A