Having grossed more than $164m locally for distributor Toho last year, animation legend Hayao Miyazaki’s latest children’s animation Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea started a major international run in France on April 8 after dipping its toes in the water with a successful smaller Italian run.

Although sharing elements with Hans Christian Anderson’s fable The Little Mermaid, which influenced Miyazaki as a child, Ponyo is set in modern-day Japan and tells the story of a fish with a girl’s face who falls in love with a five-year-old boy.

The film had its first European test when it had a medium release in Italy on March 20 through Lucky Red, grossing $323,000 on its first weekend from 184 copies, more than double the number of prints the indie distributor issued for Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle in September 2005. In it second weekend, takings dropped less than 1% and to date the film has grossed $894,000, outstripping the territory totals for both Spirited Away($805,000) and Howl’s Moving Castle ($655,000) after only three weeks.

Walt Disney Smpi rolled out the film on approximately 265 screens in France last Wednesday, a medium-scale launch for the market. This contrasts with the much larger release of almost 400 screens Howl’s Moving Castle enjoyed in January 2005 (through the then Gaumont/Buena Vista deal), which resulted in a $2.5m first-place debut, before going on to gross $8.8m in the territory.

Ponyo will face strong competition in the territory this week, opening against Fast & Furious and French comedy Bank Error In Your Favour (Erreur De La Banque En Votre Faveur) among others.

With the film seen as more accessible than Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo should have a decent opening in the market, but will require steady holdover business over the coming weeks to reach the box office heights of Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away ($6.3m). The French release of Ponyo coincides with releases in Belgium (through distributors Cineart) and Switzerland (through Frenetic Films).

Ponyo began its life outside Japan in September last year when the film premiered internationally at the Venice film festival. A handful of Asian releases followed, including Singapore on January 1 (where it took $300,000) and Hong Kong on January 17, where, through Intercontinental Film Distributors, it earned nearly $3m, slightly higher than previous Studio Ghibli animations.

Spain will host the next significant release, when it opens for Aurum on April 24, aiming to surpass the $823,000 and $731,000 that Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle took respectively.

In the UK, Optimum Releasing will release the English-language version, featuring the vocal talents of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson, in either late-July or August, slightly earlier than the September release Optimum opted for with the previous two Studio Ghibli animations. The distributor is keen to give the film a strong release, opening on around 200 screens, more than double the 81 screens secured for Howl’s Moving Castle, and four times the number for Spirited Away.

Disney will look for Ponyo to improve upon the $4.7m Howl’s Moving Castle took in North America, and aim to equal, if not exceed, the $10.1m Spirited Away grossed in 2002. It will have some heavyweight support in the form of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall who, at the behest of Ponyoproducer and Studio Ghibli executive director Toshio Suzuki, were enlisted in the summer of 2008 to oversee the English-language version, now slated for an August 14 release in North America.

Strong reviews, the reputation of Miyazaki and the joyous nature of this affecting animation will carry the film to receptive audiences as it arrives in each territory through the summer and into late 2009.

Additional reporting by Jason Gray

 Spirited AwayHowl’s Moving CastlePonyo on the Cliff by the Sea
North America$10.1m$4.7mAug 14
France$6.3m$8.8mApr 8
UK$1.4m$1.5mAug (TBC)
Germany$2m$2.3mOct 8
Other key openings: Spain (April 24), Netherlands (July 23), Russia (September 24), Brazil (October 9)