We subscribe to Netflix, and I'm always on the lookout for kid-friendly films, particularly ones that are rated "G". This is how I came to be aware of Ponyo. Its thumbnail repeatedly popped up in my perusal of kids' movies. However, it's Japanese anime, and I find that such movies/cartoons are usually cheesy and badly acted, at least in the way they are translated into English.
I am happy to say Ponyo is the great exception to what I have found to be the rule. Its cinematography is beyond gorgeous (eat your heart out, James "Avatar" Cameron), and it has a cute, family-safe story about the love between a little 5-year-old boy and his little friend, who happens to be a girl.
Actually, she happens to be a girl fish. But she wants badly to be a human. She is a goldfish, to be precise, whom the boy, Sosuke, finds in the shallows by the sea ("Ponyo" means "by the sea" in Japanese) and wants to keep as a pet.
Here's where the next plot point comes in, and it is what may give some parents pause before they rent this for their family. The father is a formerly human, now sea dwelling sorcerer. He's very concerned about the earth and the elements being "out of balance." Ponyo's mother, we learn, is a sort of female Neptune. It's never said like that, but it's sort of the impression with which one is left. If there is a Mother Earth, Ponyo's mom is Mother Ocean. So there is magic and recourse to magic. If parents have let their kids watch movies where magic happens, then, trust me, this factor won't pose a problem for said offspring. However, if parents have taught their children that depictions of magic are always and everywhere evil and thus anti-Christian (unless they're embued with a Christian ethos a la the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), then this movie isn't for such a household.
For myself, I didn't find it problematic. I got caught up in the cute story and intoxicated by the beautiful animation. This is anime that is true art, and art that is accessible to the common man, at that. My kids liked the film, too, even though my older sons behaved throughout as though they were the robots in an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," for which I finally had to banish them from the room. I love that show, mind you, but when I want to watch an episode, I'll go to YouTube or something. I don't need it happening while I'm watching a film I want to see.
In any event, this features a star-studded cast: Matt Damon as Sosuke's father, Tina Fey as his mother, Liam Neeson as Ponyo's father, Cloris Leachman and Betty White as seniors at a retirement home where Sosuke's mom works, Cate Blanchett as Ponyo's mom, Lily Tomlin as the annoying senior home resident Toki, and SNL alum Laraine Newman in a very small part ("additional voices").
Finally, there is an enviro message, but it's very subtle, blink-and-you'll-miss it. Most children will utterly miss it, I believe, although that presumes I can get into their little skulls, which I can't.
The film's overall message is, "Love someone for who they are, not what they look like" or, if you prefer, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Not a bad message.
On a scale of 1-5 stars, I give this a 4.