No ecological undertones, no mystical cats to marry, no spiritual wonderment, nary an in-your-face moral lesson to close things out. Just a pig, his plane, and the Adriatic.
Said to be the closest thing to an autobiography of Hayao Miyazaki, Porco Rosso is a light-hearted, nostalgic tale of a freelance air pilot in the post-World War I Mediterranean.
Air pirates plague the land, swooping down on unsuspecting ships in their boat planes, taking what they want. Porco, a WWI fighting ace who has been cursed with the body and face of a pig, is now a gun for hire, invoking fear in the hearts of pirates, and putting dents in the wallets of those who hire him. A wanted man in his home of Italy, Porco has settled for a life as a bachelor mercenary.
When a coalition of pirates and wealthy men decide Porco has got to go, they hire a brash, talented American pilot named Donald Curtis to take him down. And this Texan could prove to be Porco's match.
Being a pig doesn't stop Porco from being suave. He's the envy of every other pilot, and the object of many a woman's desires. Pork or not, he's a hunk, and he knows it. A sexy lounge singer and cafe owner named Gina holds a frustrating love for Porco, one he should be more aware of as he womanizes.
But when a young engineer girl named Fio fixes his plane and joins him on his journey, Porco is forced to reevaluate his place in life and how he views the opposite sex.
Miyazaki's greatest loves, aside from the environment, are the focus of this movie: Flying and strong women. Pick most any Miyazaki film and you'll find flying plays a part. In Porco Rosso, the WWI era boat planes are almost treated like another character, with them and fighter planes present in about 80 percent of the scenes. Miyazaki loves flying, and it's most apparent in Porco Rosso.
Another Miyazaki staple is the presence of strong female characters, and in Porco Rosso this is highlighted. Heavily. And underlined. The hostages taken by the first air pirates we meet? All rambunctious girls. The people who rebuild Porco's plane? All skilled women. The person who redesigns the plane? Fio, your eager, headstrong Miyazaki female lead. When the man in charge of rebuilding Porco's plane says prayers before dinner, he asks for God's forgiveness for using women's hands to build a warplane.
Most all of the male characters – Porco included – have something nefarious about them. The sea pirates are brutes. Donald Curtis is an egotistical ass. All the gamblers and people in charge are up to no good. And when we first meet Porco, all he's about is making a buck. It takes the honor of a young girl to change him, and everyone around her.
Is Miyazaki saying something in general about men and chauvinism when he makes Marco a pig? Probably. But instead of being heavy handed, the subtle message in Porco Rosso is delivered playfully, laughably. Porco is a good guy at heart, but he's on the run from the growing fascism of Italy, and he's turned into a product of his environment. Hey, he'll hunt down those pirates for you, but it's gonna cost you. And he'll be right back at his secluded beach hideout, throwing back a glass of wine and laughing at the world that won't have him, when he's done.
The attention to detail is wonderful, especially for a 1992 animation: Glasses on small tables subtly sway and bump when a leg hits underneath, shadows are proportional in all cases, tiny bits of water spray in great detail, propellers are appropriately shaded. And the planes, oh, the planes. Each plane – Porco's, the sea pirates', the fighter biplanes in flashback scenes – is animated with care and individuality in mind. The fights are fast and realistic, and the simple journeys have a sense of joy to them, for both Porco and the viewer.
Porco Rosso isn't like other Miyazaki movies. It's fun and light, but not a kids' flick. It's exciting, but neither bloody nor vicious. It has a controversial ending and a true historical feel. In other words, it's about as far away from Spirited Away as you can get.
And that's not a bad thing.
Once again, horrific rumblings on the Net about poor video quality of the new Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli DVDs were greatly exaggerated. I couldn't find any problems at all with the transfer, nothing that got in the way of the widescreen presentation (enhanced for 16X9 TVs). Porco's one-of-a-kind Savoia S-21 looks beautiful, and whether it's set against a moving sunset or a cloud-spotted, blue sky, it looks fantastic in flight. The only complaint I had was that while in most scenes Porco's plane is brilliant red, sometimes it looks pink or orange (Fio's hair is a brighter shade of red in some scenes, and the difference is most notable at night or when the plane is indoors). Colors in general look great and realistic, air battles are sharp and smooth, and the blacks look deep.
Jean Reno, Suuichirou Moriyama, or Michael Keaton as Porco? Choices, choices. This is partly why the replay value for Porco Rosso is so high. Each language track – French, Japanese, English – offers a subtly different immersion into the movie, I found. The French stereo track sounds a bit monotone, but at the same time melodic, and fits well in the overall setting of the Mediterranean. Plus it's just fun to listen to a Japanese-made story about an Italian pilot in French with English subtitles. The Japanese stereo track is the most whimsical, if sometimes jarring. There's something about Fio's Japanese voice that didn't sit well with me. The English surround sound track has a ton of excellent talent and gives American viewers characters they can relate to more. A British-born Cary Elwes voicing a brash Texan wasn't as farfetched as it sounded on paper, and I didn't find myself thinking of Batman when Keaton spoke. The English dub is a little more playful than the French and Japanese tracks. "Dear all passengers, we are currently being attacked by sea pirates," a ship's announcer says in the same tone of voice which would be used for saying "Lunch is now being served in the main dining hall."
It all depends which language you prefer to hear "Pig, chicken, what's the difference?" in, because every track sounds great, with perfect and believable sounds for engines, bullets, crowds and the ocean. The English mix is good, but not leaps and bounds better than the other tracks. I noticed no distortions, improper noise or other problems with any of the options. Excellent, all-around audio on this disc.
In all three cases of this second-round of Ghibli DVDs released by Disney/Buena Vista (Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind and The Cat Returns being the other two), the second disc is a feature-length storyboard presentation of the movie. A waste of space, or an appropriate addition to Miyazaki and Ghibli DVDs? Casual viewers may never pop that second disc into their DVD players, but the hard-core fans and animation nuts will be thankful to have this kind of feature on a Miyazaki DVD. If you have enough time, go ahead and watch the second disc. If you don't, rewatch Porco Rosso in one of the other languages. Either way, you've got your money's worth.
The short Behind the Microphone featurette sees the English voice actors talking mostly about how some script changes were necessary to pull off the lip-synching, and what it's like to voice an animation. Susan Egan is easily the funniest cat in the bunch: "OK it takes place in Italy, it was originally in Japanese, now it's in English, but she sings in French," she says of her character Gina, crossing her eyes. "I'm playing opposite Michael Keaton and Cary Elwes, yet I've never met them. That takes talent." Kimberly Williams hits Miyazaki movie standards right on the nose, pointing out her ambitious character Fio and the emphasis on flying.
The interview with lead Ghibli Producer Toshio Suzuki is a short bit that aired on Japanese TV in 1992, and it's not all that entertaining, with the off-camera interviewer asking all of three questions. It must have been a longer profile interview, with only the Porco Rosso comments edited together for this DVD. Suzuki does share how Porco Rosso has adults intended as the audience, more so than any other Miyazaki movie, and how you can find a lot of Miyazaki's personality in Porco. But other than the interviews and a few original Japanese TV spots and trailers, the extras on this DVD are a little disappointing.
The slipcover for each of these DVDs are simple replications of the front and back covers of the DVD case.
I would have loved more features on these DVDs to complement Porco Rosso. It doesn't seem like laziness, just maybe not enough material about the 1992 film to fill things out.
Only a few die-hards rank Porco Rosso at or among the top of their favorite Miyazaki movies list, and it's definitely the most underrated of all of Miyazaki's films. Funny, pleasant on the eyes, sweet in a way different from any other Ghibli film, Porco Rosso is a celebration of Miyazaki's greatest loves, and can be appreciated mostly by adults, but has nothing objectionable for children. DVDTalk Collector Series is an easy call.