[ACTUAL Review lies below this logistics blurb. Looking for words of praise? Skip down far below. Fanatically OCD about technicalities like I am? Read on, straight into logistics:] [Yes, this review has been mirrored across two products, because I think it applies to both.]
What Jason Scott wrote about the shortened themes is correct - at least, I would take his word for it. I actually did not purchase this particular import of the CD, but obtained a [licensed] pressing made in Taiwan, which, to my understanding, is "identical to [the] CD distributed earlier in Japan" (according to the back cover of the CD). I have the same situation. It's confusing as to what is the MAIN theme of this film - is it track one, "Deep Sea Ranch" (with the full choir establishing the setting of the sea, the camera panning deep into its depths...?), track two, "Mother of the Sea" (which plays during the interesting opening credits, up into Ponyo pokes her head out of the water), or is it the final track, "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" (needs no explanation - end credits!). As it happens you do not actually get very satisfactory [read: not WHOLE and uncut, but still absolutely wonderful] recordings of any of these three key themes on this CD. "Deep Sea Ranch" was never meant to be a real standalone theme, I suppose, so that's perfectly all right that it doesn't come as its own developed piece (unlike, say, "The Merry-go-round of Life" from "Howl's Moving Castle"). As for "Mother of the Sea," Mr. Scott did not point this one out, but it's ALSO shortened. I.E. you get the film version, which is not what I consider to be the orthodox one. In the "orthodox" recording (for example, if you were to perhaps see Hisaishi's 25-years concert in Budokan - by hook or crook - there is an "orthodox" version of this piece) the piece is about twice as long, because the theme is extended into a sort of repeat in B-flat major, instead of cutting off due to film time constraints. I suspect this point is trivial to most people.
Now, the crucial piece, the point that Mr. Scott made about the actual theme song of the film - it is indeed a cut version. An interlude and a final reprise of the theme are taken out of the version on this CD, which shortens it considerably; this cut version on the CD is exactly the one that plays at the end of the movie. The "orthodox" (as I call it) recording of the theme can be found on the single release (dig around, it's a bit scarce) or on the Image Album. The same thing goes for the "orthodox" recording of "Mother of the Sea," which can be found on the Image Album as well. Now of course, if you're all right with just listening to 1:36 as opposed to 2:44 of the catchy and cute Totoro-esque theme, you'll be totally happy. But if you're a Hisaishi maniac like I am, have fun hunting down a good deal for the image album / theme single. I am currently hunting for a cheap offering of the image album in Taiwan, but I'm having trouble. You might want to call up your Japanese friends for some help if you're interested.
[LOGISTICS END HERE. ACTUAL REVIEW BEGINS BELOW.]
I won't compare to Williams or Zimmer here. Hisaishi is a confounded genius and he never fails to deliver. Regardless of whether or not you enjoyed the movie, this music should be great for you - yeah, if you found it "childish" you might have a bone to pick with the mood-setting music, which is by and large light-hearted and spirit-lifting (perhaps unduly so for the straight-laced). Like all film music, Hisaishi takes a couple of memorable themes and exploits them into a gazillion variations that never really bore you, even after the first thousand listens. It's not always as clever as what he did with "Howl's Moving Castle," but it is pleasing to the ear, nonetheless, and perhaps a bit less "stiff" as some listeners may find "Howl." I mean "stiff" is in "completely classical," which was one impression I got off "Howl" (don't get me wrong, I love it all the more for that...but some people can't stand the feel of classical music); by comparison, the score for "Ponyo" is a lot more bouncy-cheery-wa-ha-ha. You occasionally get the piece that will make your death-metal-lover pout (e.g. whenever the choir comes in, concurrent with the appearance of Ponyo's mother), but then you have so many pieces that you just know will make you smile like "Ura Town" (track four) because of the sheer happiness in their compositions and orchestrations. It helps to know the movie, but it's not necessary - for example, I actually laughed out loud at track 32 and thought inwardly: "RUN RUN RUN PARALLEL TO THE GROUND...NOW SPATTER THAT OLD LADY WITH RANCID FISH WATER" [if you've seen the film, you will probably remember...if not, don't mind that little outburst].
This soundtrack is a great show of Hisaishi's ability to compose in the vein that the movie calls for. It's a fully armed score that goes from super-happy to very serious at the drop of a dime. The movie on the whole is meant to be a bit light-hearted, and Hisaishi's score brings out just that magic. Compare this score to something a bit more heavy-handed like "Princess Mononoke" [whoof. Goosebumps.] and you'll see just how amazing Hisaishi is with his tone-setting music.
I've been restating a lot of stuff, so I'll cut myself short here. Great composition, great [mood-setting] orchestrations / arrangements, great for everyone; great music.