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There are movies that show and movies that tell -- and Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, who made "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Spirited Away," has always been a master at showing.

In his latest movie to arrive in America, "Ponyo," Miyazaki (who wrote and directed) shows us a wealth of undersea wonders -- treacherous waves pounding the breakers, luminous jellyfish floating below the surface, and rainbows flowing in the current.

But as beautiful as "Ponyo" is to the eye, the movie -- thanks in part to a spotty English-language adaptation -- is sometimes a bit grating to the ear and confusing to the brain.

The central story is "The Little Mermaid" for the kindergarten set. Ponyo is a headstrong fish, the daughter of an eccentric hook-nosed wizard (voiced by Liam Neeson), who decides to escape her underwater home for a look at the human world. She washes ashore and is found by Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas, little sibling of the Jonas Brothers), a kindergartner who lives on a high cliff with his mom, a senior-center nurse named Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey), while his father is off at sea.

Sosuke takes care of Ponyo, but the fish soon is washed back to sea by a malevolent wave sent by her father. Ponyo busts free again, this time unleashing a flurry of wizardly magic, and returns to Sosuke as a human girl (voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley's sis). Miyazaki captures the friendship between Ponyo and Sosuke in clear, bright lines. Alas, the rest of the story -- as Ponyo's father frets about the world being "out of balance," with the moon approaching and causing the ocean to flood Sosuke's town, and calling for help from Ponyo's sea-goddess mom (voiced by Cate Blanchett) -- is murky and darn near incomprehensible.

Maybe there's something lost in translation. The English dialogue (the adaptation is credited to "E.T." screenwriter Melissa Mathison) is often stilted and unnatural, and many of the line readings -- particularly by Fey and the children -- are lacking spirit.

But Miyazaki's eye-catching ocean images, reminiscent of the worlds-within-worlds magic of American children's book writer David Wiesner (check out Sector 7 and Flotsam to see what I'm talking about), are what make "Ponyo" still worth seeing. Forget about the plot, and let those visuals wash over you.



A fish decides to become a human girl in Hayao Miyazaki's visually alluring animated adventure.

Where » Theaters everywhere.

When » Opens Friday.

Rating » G.

Running time » 108 minutes.