The Disney flourishes upon this elegant piece — stunt voice casting, junior Mouse House stablehands thrust before the microphone, and a shitty, abominable closing song — don't overwrite Miyazaki's touch. The tale is too simple, the execution too masterful. It's of a piece with the great Princess Mononoke, which similarly found lovers from different worlds facing ecological catastrophe, but its message is cast toward a different listener, much younger than I.
For love of Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas), the merchild at first called Brunhilde (Noah Cyrus) gives up the name her father gave her in favor of that bestowed by the human boy. Rather than rescue her prince from a storm like Andersen's tragic heroine, Ponyo brings the storm herself in a quest to reunite with Sosuke. The moon is falling because this magical child loves a mortal, and she'll blithely inundate the world to reach him. The sea princess skips atop massive swells drawn straight from Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and carries the tide right to Sosuke's door. (Little Brunhilde's soundtrack, in her assault on the land, is very much like "The Ride of the Valkyries.")
As for Sosuke, he loves Ponyo in return, but by slipping into that trap he loosens ties with his mother (Tina Fey), and finds reason to worry that his father (Matt Damon) may have died at sea. Andersen's story was all about mortality, and characters here are threatened with death more than once along their road — a road, by the way, that's also traveled by beautiful armored Devonian fish – but we tend to forget the source material also provides a note of transcendent hope in its tragedy. The men of Ponyo, from Sosuke's semi-neglectful father to the fretful water wizard Fujimoto, are invariably out of their depth in dealing with this crisis of love. The women — Sosuke's resourceful mom and Ponyo's vast and unknowable mother-goddess (Cate Blanchett, talking like Marlene Dietrich so we won't confuse her with the other goddess she's played) — have a secret insight to this mystery, something they won't share even with the audience. With the exception of elderly Toki (Lily Tomlin), who bears the standard folkloric warning against a sea-being living among mortals, they understand that love will out, though the heavens fall, and that a sanctified love can actually support the moon in the sky.
Oh, and my two-year-old loved it.