It almost seems pointless at this point to sing the praises of Studio Ghibli and its famous director, the great Hayao Miyazaki. The internet is dotted with support for his brilliance and his films are readily available on US soil thanks to an agreement between Studio Ghibli and The Walt Disney Company. Even so, it’s still worthwhile repeating that Miyazaki is a supremely gifted director with an apparent synergy with the animation medium. Many of his works are animated films because that’s just what Miyazaki does. They could have easily been shot in live-action and more obviously marketed towards adults. Some possess such fantastic imagery that it’s clear to see why they are animated, while a film such as The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s most recent and possibly his last, is essentially a drama well-grounded in reality that just happens to be animated.
Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s older works. Debuting in Japanese cinemas in 1992, it tells the tale of a former Italian flying ace turned bounty hunter cursed to live out the rest of his life with the face of a pig. Like The Wind Rises, it romanticizes the role of the pilot and easily could have been a live-action piece (though the pig-faced Porco may not have played as well as an actual person). And like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s now available via Disney Blu Ray which is how I had the pleasure of experiencing it.
The film opens with Porco battling sky pirates: pirates that choose to attack luxury cruise ships via seaplane. The setting is post World War I and Porco has apparently been hired by the ship owners to keep the pirates away. We immediately get a sense of the film’s tone as the pirates are pretty bad at what they do and Porco is quite nonchalant in his attitude towards them. He combats them via a seaplane of his own, a beat-up old red thing that has trouble getting off the water, and has little trouble foiling their plans and freeing their hostages. There’s an obvious lack of danger throughout the sequence despite the bullets flying through the air but it doesn’t harm the enjoyment of the scene. Following this confrontation, we’re shown a little more of the setting. The pirates, looking to rid themselves of Porco once and for all, have turned to an American named Curtis. Curtis sees this as an opportunity for fame and fortune as he yearns for a career in Hollywood. He also would like to woo Porco’s longtime friend and proprietor of a local establishment frequented by pirates and pilots alike, Gina.
Curtis is an interesting character from a westerner’s point of view. Some may call his portrayal unflattering, or even offensive, as he does not possess any obvious virtues. I found it interesting to see how an American is stereotyped outside of the country and found the character pretty amusing. He is a skilled pilot and represents some sense of danger in an otherwise light-hearted film, and is a natural foil for the care-free Porco.
After a confrontation with Curtis that leaves Porco’s plane in need of repairs, Porco is forced to head back to his homeland of Italy where he is wanted for desertion. Porco’s mechanic Piccolo is introduced, along with his family and a large contingent of locals, and proves to be a very entertaining addition to the cast. What could have been a slow and boring part of the film turns into a strength. Some credit should go to the english translators who are able to come up with snappy dialogue to suit the original tone of the scenes as well as fit the mouth-flaps of the animated characters. The film builds towards a confrontation between Porco and Curtis, one Porco seems disinterested in, and plays upon the notion of pilot’s honor. There’s also a bit of a romantic angle thrown in that feels tacked on but isn’t focused on enough to be a distraction.
The star of the film is clearly the Porco character, not just because of his prominence in the title but in his personality as well. He’s a flawed human but an inherently interesting one. He’s funny, boorish, yet charming. The english version features Michael Keaton as the voice of Porco. At first, I wasn’t sure his voice suited the character but I warmed to it quickly. Keaton is almost deadpan in his delivery at times, but he’s able to lend his charisma to the character through the excellent script and his superb delivery. The rest of the cast features some names familiar to those who have watched a lot of anime. Gina is played by Susan Egan, who has done a lot of work in the field of animation and is a consummate pro. Brad Garrett, who also seems to be amassing a lot of voice credits, plays the leader of the seaplane pirates and Kimberly Williams-Paisley portrays Piccolo’s granddaughter Fio with charming exuberance. Joe Hisaishi is once again the composer who utilizes a lot of period pieces to help enhance the film’s setting. The main Porco theme is one of my favorite works he’s composed as its perky nature suits the tone of the film perfectly.
The animation, as always, is breath-taking. The colors are rich and are only more so on the Blu Ray medium. I particularly love the shade of red used for Porco’s seaplane and the understated blues of the ocean water. Milan is drawn wonderfully and a sequence featuring Porco racing through the city’s canals is probably the most technically impressive of the whole film. The level of detail shown in the plane components was something I found myself appreciating and it’s quite clear that Miyazaki has a love for airplanes.
The film moves at a comfortable pace, wrapping up in just over 90 minutes. It’s tone never wavers as it’s quite high-spirited and inherently fun. I don’t know if I was just turned off by Porco’s look going in, but I wasn’t really excited to watch this film at first but it quickly won me over. It compares quite favorably to My Neighbor Totoro in that it isn’t a deeply serious film with a lot on the line. It’s really just a good old-fashioned adventure full of likable characters, captivating action, and gorgeous visuals.