Most fantasy stories fall into one of two groups. The first group places fantasy elements into the ‘real’ world and forces the fantasy to interact with our laws, such as gravity and occasionally evolution (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a good example of that type). The second group just goes ahead and makes a whole new world and establishes the rules of order in the text (“Lord of the Rings” is a good example for group two).

“Ponyo,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, falls firmly in the second group. Miyazaki has taken the backbone of “The Little Mermaid” tale and crafted this world that is absolutely breathtaking.

The film opens with a nearly silent underwater sequence where we meet our heroine, Ponyo, a little fish, who loves to explore the world around her, especially when she can get away from her wizard father. One day she swims too far away and meets Sosuke, a five year old boy who plucks her out of the ocean and takes her along on his daily routine.

However, her father Fujimoto eventually finds her and brings her back home, but Ponyo will not stay put. She gets dosed with some magic from her dad’s secret depository, and with the help of her sister fish girls, she pushes her way to the surface and makes herself human, with her superpowers intact. Of course, that power comes with a price, and the island that Sosuke and his mother Lisa live on is soon threatened by abnormal storms.

Whew, and that’s not even getting to the second hour of the film. “Ponyo” is a crazy mixed-up tale, but it’s one that works on all levels. The kids are great little kids who find wonder in every corner of the wide world they live in (and the animation of the kids and the way they move may be the best part of the movie).

 Ponyo believably acts like someone who was just born and wants to taste and touch and smell everything within reach, and Sosuke is so delighted to have his fishy friend walking and talking that he doesn’t really notice the dangers around them.

Even the adults get in on the fun; Lisa is a loving mother with a bit of a reckless side, but one who doesn’t think twice about harboring a lost little girl (or helping out the wheelchair-bound women she works with during deadly weather). Even Fujimoto is less “evil wizard” than over-protective father, but even he learns that humans aren’t all bad in the end.

What’s most surprising about “Ponyo” and Miyazaki’s other films, especially “My Neighbor Totoro,” is the noticeable lack of cynicism. With one minor exception, the characters just go with the flow of the narrative, even capturing some of the childlike wonder while they’re at it (with the watercolor and pastel animation style, not to mention an imagination in overdrive, there is plenty of wonder to go around). Children, especially 5-year-olds, just don’t have that meanness of spirit in them, and “Ponyo” honors that spirit with a tale all about the wonders of life, not the downsides.

“Ponyo” is that rare kids’ film that lacks a villain, a wisecracking sidekick and a predictable storytelling format, really all the pieces that make American kids’ movies fun, and still manages to soar.

“Ponyo” (2008)

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki