Porco Rosso Review
Fading in to the sight of a lagoon somewhere in the Adriatic Sea in the 1920s, Porco Rosso stars the titular character, translated to mean the Crimson Pig, as a pilot who dabbles in daring raids against the air pirates who operate in that area, not as a hero but as a bounty hunter. One such gang is run by Manma Aiutto, who make their first appearance in the film by kidnapping a group of young girls from a cruise ship, which Porco is alerted to. As Manma Aiutto takes off in his seaplane, painted with skulls to let his quarry know who they're dealing with, Porco flies alongside him but although he warns them with a couple of shots across their path, they keep on flying and returning fire. Shooting out their engine, Porco forces them to land, after which he rescues and returns the girls and is celebrated, much to his annoyance, as a hero in the newspapers.
But the pirates aren't happy, Manma Aiutto least of all. As he repairs his plane, including the .37 gun that he tore from its fuselage in a desperate last stand against Porco, he considers how best to rid the skies over the Adriatic of Porco, leaving it free once again for the air pirates. Help appears to come in the shape of a stranger, Donald Curtis, an American who dresses like a cowboy, flies a Curtiss R3C-0 and wants to make movies and becomes president of the US, probably in that order. He signals his intentions to the pirates by enjoying a quiet drink with Porco in the Hotel Adriano after which he shoots down two planes that had launched in defence of a passenger ship that Manma Aiutto is attempting a raid on. Allowing the pirates to take their loot, Curtis waits for the arrival of Porco , after which he shoots him down but only gaining the upper hand in the dogfight when Porco's engine fails. Porco's plane crashes and Curtis confirms the kill by spotting a piece of Porco's bright red plane in the water.
Porco survives, though, and makes his way to Milan and to a workshop run by an old man known as Grandpa Piccolo, as well as Fio, his granddaughter. There, he hides out from the Fascists who are rising to power, as well as the air-pirates, who are once again successful in their raiding of passenger ships now Porco is no longer defending them. But Porco only bides his time until Fio, an expert engineer, repairs his seaplane, after which he plans on returning to the Adriatic to take his revenge.
In the review of Pom Poko that was posted earlier today, I remarked that I tend to greet the opening minutes of a Studio Ghibli production with a sense of disappointment, particularly so when there's mention of spirits. This isn't, of course, exclusive to Studio Ghibli, as there's an equal sense of disappointment at the first sight of a talking animal in a Disney production or, worse, a farting one. Indeed, I've avoided any of the sequels to The Lion King as they appear to have almost made the lions little more than a supporting cast to Pumbaa, a talking, farting warthog. And yet, films from both studios do have a way working their charm on me, even a film like Treasure Planet that's not only regarded as a failure but has an alien creature that actually talks by making farting noises. Flatulence, I believe, is what Delbert Dogbert, a talking dog-man-thing describes it as. Hence, you have a film like Princess Mononoke that makes much of the existence of a forest spirit but which remains one of my very favourite Miyazaki films, not only for its epic feel and for its stunning animation but also for its enormously accessible treatment of what is a very complex storyline.
Porco Rosso, though, is completely different. Indeed, it may not even be an animated film that's particularly well suited for very young children. What the viewer will notice first is that unlike many other animated films, it doesn't take place in the world of fantasy or storybooks, but in the art-deco world of the 1920s and with the exception of Porco Rosso, is peopled by everyday men and women. It features, though, a beautifully realised world, in which movie posters are framed on the walls, journalists carry cameras with flashes that pop audibly and Madame Gina sings love songs in a smoky, dimly-lit bar in the Hotel Adriana. It's a marvellous evocation of the time, with the small details of the time carried into Miyazaki's directing of the animation so perfectly that the viewer feels immediately at home within the 1920s and in the stretches of the Italian shoreline and islands on which the film is set.
But not that the setting of the film should trouble any younger viewers, more that there isn't any obvious reason why Porco is a pig. Of course, children, being far more open-minded than adults, may just accept that a pig is what he is and think nothing more about it, but there's much reasoning in the film as to why Porco changed from having a human face to having the head of a pig. That Porco once was a human is never in doubt, as not only is there much talk of it from Gina as well as Fio, who asks Porco why he is a pig - he answers, "Dunno" - but there is also a picture on a wall in the Hotel Adriano with the face of a pilot scratched out and we're led to believe this was a pre-pig Porco. The actual reasons that are hinted at are something to do with his disgust of humanity, with the FAQ at nausicaa.net saying that a press release accompanied the original showings of the film in which Miyazaki is quoted as saying, "When a man becomes middle-aged, he becomes a pig." What the film implies that he is either disgusted with humanity or with himself, particularly when he has feelings of jealousy over the marriage of his best friend to Gina. When Gina's husband dies in battle - Porco witnesses him joining a heavenly parade of dead pilots into the far reaches of the sky, higher even than Porco can fly - Porco feels sufficiently bad as to turn into a pig.
Similarly, for the film's hero, Porco is not awfully heroic, shooting down the pirates not so much to do the right thing as to collect the bounty that's his on the return of what goods they've stolen. It's no doubt linked to his being a pig but Porco is a difficult character to like and although Donald Curtis is more closer to what we might perceive a hero to be, he's far too brash to actually warm to. Even with his flattery of her, Gina fails to warm to him and we keep a similar distance, judging him as someone we like less than we do Porco, even when he's being almost as difficult. Happily, then, it's Fio who gives the film a heart and we like Porco largely because we like her, much as he does.
Either way, this is not a story that will be easily understood by younger children, particularly when the fascists launch a raid on the pilots operating in the Adriatic late in the film. Of course, for older children and for adults, it's a terrific story, full of sweeping aerial battles, beautifully detailed animation, particularly in the manner in which the crowds have been drawn during Curtis and Porco's duel, and a quietly introspective middle section, during which Porco hides out in Milan. It's there that he meets Fio, who gives the film a second wind, being passionate where Porco often just sounds weary and innocent where Porco appears to have seen too much. It is this excitableness that has Fio suggest to Curtis that he ought to challenge Porco a second time, which sets up the film's finale.
In the end, you will no doubt find yourself cheering for Porco, as much to not cheer for Curtis as for Porco's chivalrous method of conducting a duel. And that may be the success of the film, getting us to like a character who's not that likeable, literally a pig of a man. The magic in the film, seen to best effect in the trail of pilots guiding their planes on their last flight, returns for an ending that doesn't really answer any of the questions posed by the story but, equally, it doesn't feel as though it should. Somehow, it wouldn't really work in live action but, when animated, it becomes an enjoyably open-ended film that probably works better for adults than as a family movie, talking pig or not.
Never looking quite as impressive as Pom Poko or Princess Mononoke, this still impresses with the marvellous amount of detail, such as the waves that lap against the beach where Porco's hideout is or Fio's engineering of Porco's plane, including the various levers and dials in the cockpit. The image on the DVD captures all of this with the picture appearing, bright, stable and able to show the clarity in the print to good effect. There is, though, the sense that the film is a little washed out and whilst the colours do seem more muted than you might expect, they do become more intense when the action moves to Milan. However, without a direct comparison it's difficult to state that Porco Rosso is presented here in the manner that it's meant to be.
The film also comes with the original Japanese audio track and translated subtitles as well as a tweaked English dub (also subtitled) that features Michael Keaton as Porco, Cary Elwes as Donald Curtis and Susan Egan was Gina, who you'll likely remember as Lynn in Spirited Away. As with Pom Poko, it's obvious from reading the subtitles in both tracks that the English dub has been slightly simplified with the occasional name changed in the rewriting but this is never particularly problematic, more that one shouldn't feel as though you're doing the film a disservice by not watching it in its original language. Either language track is fine, though, clear without much noise but a little lacking in bass and, consequently, sounding a touch too brittle.
As with Pom Poko, which is also being released on February 6th 2006, Porco Rosso comes with a selection of trailers for various other Studio Ghibli releases as well as a feature-length version of the film in storyboard form. Again, it would be difficult to see anyone watching this in one sitting but it's enjoyable to dip in and out of, particularly during the better scenes. There is also an interview with the film's producer, Toshio Suzuki, but in lasting only a little over three minutes, it's an inconsequential extra that adds almost nothing to one's thoughts on the film.
It's a daring film, not particularly close to either Studio Ghibli's greater flights of fantasy, such as Spirited Away, Laputa, Castle In The Sky or Princess Mononoke nor to the quieter films such as Pom Poko or Kiki's Delivery Service but is a majestic, magical film nonetheless. Indeed, it feels unique to that studio as I doubt if we would see its like from Disney although there's the feeling that if Brad Bird continues working at Pixar, he may produce something as grown up as this, in the same way that The Incredibles was pitched at a fairly mature audience. With a good transfer onto DVD but lacking the extras of other regions, this is a good release but one that's likely to be picked up by those coming to Studio Ghibli following Spirited Away. They will undoubtedly be surprised by Porco Rosso but I'd argue that it would be difficult not to be, given the few animated titles that have been produced for an adult audience.