Porco Rosso Review

Despite the fact that it came in the wake of such hit films as Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, Laputa, Castle In The Sky, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso was never intended to be an accessible and commercial hit nor even intended for a younger audience, but when released in 1992, it surprised its director by being the most successful and biggest grossing film to date for Studio Ghibli. Its origins began as a short comic strip for Model Grafix, a personal project reflecting Miyazaki’s love for aviation and the designs of early aircraft. Japanese Airlines subsequently commissioned a short exclusive 45-minute film from the director for screening on international flights and from there Porco Rosso grew eventually into a fully-fledged feature film.

Turned into a pig by some mysterious curse, Marco has become known as Porco Rosso, the Crimson Pig. Some people, like night-club singer Gina, remember Porco as he once was, and despite his current appearance, still hopes he will one day be able to love her. Porco however no longer considers himself in any way human and hides away on a remote island from where, flying his red 1920’s seaplane as a bounty hunter, he is the scourge of all the pirates in the Adriatic, particularly the Mamma Aiuto gang. The pirates hire an American air ace, mercenary and Hollywood movie idol, Donald Curtis to challenge Porco Rosso and take him out, but Porco’s old Savoia SV-21, despite many expert patch-ups, just isn’t up to the strain of a sky duel. Fortunately, his engineer Grandpa Piccolo, together with the aid of his young granddaughter Fio and his large and talented family, put Porco Rosso’s plane back together again for a final showdown with Curtis and the pirates.

Porco Rosso has many of the hallmarks and characteristics of Miyazaki’s best work. Beautifully detailed backgrounds, a strong sense of location and flowing aviation sequences bring to mind both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The film also has Miyazaki's recognisable character designs and characteristics common to most of Miyazaki’s films - particularly in the young strong female character of Fio and in a sequence where the female members of Signor Piccolo’s extended family work to repair Porco’s damaged plane, recalling a similar scene of female workers in Princess Mononoke. On the other hand Porco himself is an interesting and atypical Miyazaki character. If not exactly amoral, there is something not quite wholesome about his attitudes and behaviour, which are far from what would be expected from a traditional cartoon action hero. Despite his air heroics, Porco is lazy and self-serving. He doesn’t particularly care about the illegality of the pirate’s behaviour and has no noble purpose in fighting them other than to earn a paycheck as a bounty hunter. He feels no compunction to stay and fight when a challenge is issued to him, taking off for Milan for the attraction of a luxurious hotel, some fine wine and attractive women. This somewhat uneasy relationship between a pig and attractive women is even stretched, in a way that is certainly not aimed at children, in Porco’s attraction to Piccolo’s young granddaughter, Fio. This is not your usual family fare, but Miyazaki keeps such references humorous and playful.

There is some fantastic animation in Porco Rosso with an astounding level of detail in enormous crowd scenes, with each figure being fully characterised and rendered with their own individual movements. Particularly enjoyable is the characterisation of the Bluto look-a-like moustachioed pirates and villains – each with billowing costumes, flapping scarves and hair waving in the wind. It’s elaborate way beyond what is required, but the film still retains a cartoony nature that prevents it slipping into sterile photo-realism and suits the material perfectly. The film really comes to life however in the flying sequences, and not just the action battle sequences. The film also takes time to just glide along for a number of scenes, capturing as only Miyazaki can do, the wonderful lightness, fluidity and the almost magical quality of flight. As ever, the impression is further underlined by Joe Hisaishi’s fabulous score, which lifts these sequences to an almost transcendent, spiritual level.

There is a sense however that the material and rather thin storyline is somewhat overstretched. Porco’s previous existence as a human and the truth of whatever turned him into a pig is left, perhaps deliberately, tantalisingly undeveloped, while the political plot line with the Fascist police who are also chasing Porco Rosso is also never quite clear. Perhaps Miyazaki intended to draw-out these elements further in a planned sequel set during the Spanish Civil War, for which a script was already written, but that film appears to have been abandoned in favour of Miyazaki’s subsequent projects.

Porco Rosso is released on DVD in the United States and Canada by Buena Vista and is presented in a 2-disc set – Disc 1 containing the film and some extra features on a dual layer disc, Disc 2 presenting the whole film in storyboard form on a single layer disc. The DVD is encoded for Region 1.

The video quality is excellent, certainly comparable to the Buena Vista Region 1 edition of Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind with its strong, sharp and stable image and clearly defined colours. The detail in the elaborate backgrounds is terrific, the colours exuding all the richness of Studio Ghibli’s textures and palette. There is some slight evidence of grain and an occasional faint flicker in the transfer, but otherwise this is wonderfully impressive.

There are a choice of audio tracks, all in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The original Japanese track is included and is clearly the best in terms of voice acting. The sound is generally clear, but rather thin – too thin to work well in Pro Logic Surround that the track is encoded for, but certainly robust enough when be channelled through the two front speakers.

The English dub is generally fine also and has a number of distinct advantages – first of all, as a European language, the characters speaking another European language is slightly more credible than Italian’s speaking Japanese, and it also allows for better differentiation between the American and Italian characters. The fact that you can also view this highly visually active film in its entirety without being distracted by the unsightly subtitles is also a considerable advantage. On the downside, Michael Keaton’s growled Batman tones do not suit the character as well as Shûichirô Moriyama on the Japanese version, and he is generally flat and unemotional. It seems to be the trend to tone down emotion on some English dubs and it’s out of place on this particular film. The rest of the voice acting talent in the English dub however is excellent. The English dub does take some liberties with the translation, and tries to be clever by naming characters after Italian film directors, even changing Porco’s real name from Marco Paggot to Marco Rosselini. While I wish they had left the script alone, it must be said that the script is the least noteworthy aspect of the film and, with just so much activity on the screen and in the backgrounds, in the end I personally preferred being able to watch the film without subtitles.

A French track is also included which is also quite good and again, as a European language, also suits the material well. It’s said that Miyazaki himself is a fan of the French dub, so it’s worth considering this option, particularly as Porco is well voiced by Jean Reno.

English subtitles and English hard of hearing subtitles are included and translate the Japanese track fairly well. The English for hard of hearing is a dubtitle of the English dub. Subtitles are yellow coloured and again, like Nausicaä, they are placed rather high in the frame, often obscuring a great deal of the sumptuous artwork. The film looks much better if you can avoid having to use them.

Behind The Microphone (7:06)
A short featurette interviews the American and English voice-actors, who speak about the difficulties of matching the English script to mouth movements and what they enjoyed about voicing their characters.

Interview with Toshio Suzuki (3:23)
The producer, from an 1992 interview, talks about how they regarded Porco Rosso as more of an adult film and how it differs from other Miyazaki films.

Original Trailers and TV Spots (8:07)
Two short teaser trailers, a full length trailer and a longer promo reel show to greater or lesser extent the same clips, making use mainly of the ‘Le Temps des Cerises’ theme and emphasising the flying and air-fight aspects of the film.

Disc 2 contains the full film in storyboard format, with the English and Japanese audio tracks only and optional English or hrd of hearing subtitles. This is not multi-angled with the feature as it is on the JapaneseR2 and Hong Kong R3 editions. Miyazaki’s original drawings are not quite as elaborate or detailed as some of his storyboards, but virtually the whole film can be still be seen designed down to the smallest of expressions, gestures and movements.

Being one of the few Miyazaki films that doesn’t have a strong young female as the principal character, Porco Rosso isn’t as immediately attractive as some of the director’s best work, but it shares the qualities of his lesser-appreciated work – the wonderful period detail, cackling villains and visual humour of Sherlock Hound, the excitement and adventure of Castle of Cagliostro with its anti-hero Lupin III, and simply some of the most magical aviation sequences of any of his films. The qualities of the animation are certainly evident on this new Region 1 release from Buena Vista, with a delightful transfer that gives you the option of watching the film as it was intended for Japanese audiences or with a reasonably good new English language dub.

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