Porco Rosso rarely finds itself at the top of most Studio Ghibli "favorite" lists, which are often capped off with the works of Hayao Miyazaki involving whimsical creatures of the forest and grand narratives hinged on being transported to dream-like settings. His tale of a veteran WWI pilot turned bounty hunter who's been cursed with the vestige of a pig doesn't have the fanciful environments of the legendary director's overt fantasies, nor the awestruck perspective of a child as our eyes and ears through Ghibli's lovingly-crafted artwork. Instead, there's something more adult-oriented about Miyazaki's delightful play on the "when pigs fly" phrase, casually touching on ideas of sentimentality and melancholy over the past, especially in reference to war-time. Despite the potential for heaviness, Porco Rosso instead soars through a vibrant, straightforward adventure in the vein of the studio's other works, only in an adult shell that both strengthens its character drama and undermines its moments of ignoring reality.
Unlike the outright outer-worldly environments of toxic jungles, floating cities, or spirit worlds, Porco Rosso grounds itself firmly in a relatively realistic depiction of the Adriatic Sea in the Italian Peninsula during the Interwar Period, in a zone dominated by seaplane pirates and the bounty-hunter pilots who track them down. Prominent among them is the titular hero himself, introduced on an island beach as Porco responds to a distress call some distance away from his hideout. The chase and dogfights between the ex-WWI pilot and his antagonists serve as the film's meager plot thrust, built on their chance meetings at a popular pilot hangout spot, the Hotel Adriano -- owned by an old, familiar acquaintance of Porco's, Gina -- and their collisions throughout the area, fueled by the puckish desires of a young American pilot, Curtis, hired by the pirates to take care of the renegade peacekeeper. To get a leg up on his rivals, Porco's also forced to up his plane's capabilities, taking him into the restricted zone of Milan to obtain trusted upgrades from another old friend, Mr. Piccolo.
While there was little question in whether Studio Ghibli could project beauty within the less-whimsical, aerodynamic atmosphere surrounding Porco Rosso's flights along the Adriatic Sea, given their airborne delights with Castle in the Sky and their real-world locales in Kiki's Delivery Service, there's an immense about of grace, beauty, and energy with the moments captured both in the sky and on the ground. Despite the brisk movement within most sequences, Miyazaki's animation never loses sight of precisely what's unfolding in each dogfight, even if it means highlighting the film's bends in realism for the sake of more upbeat storytelling. There's more energy and thrills present in Porco's maneuvering and his enemies' spastic responses to his tactics than many other films built on plane warfare, all with the coasts and crystal waters of the Italian Peninsula in the background. It may not be a magical setting, per se, but the planes' gracefulness against -- and above -- the horizons makes it feel just as other-worldly.
Unlike Miyazaki's earlier films which explore broader themes that have been made accessible for younger audiences, Porco Rosso works around a mature tempo built around duty, fallen comrades, and nostalgia for times passed. It's an interesting harmony with the lighthearted action driving it, where Miyazaki orchestrates death-defying acts that seem determined to avoid any and all further instances of what created Porco's hint of a melancholy attitude: death, though the film avoids blatant mentions or displays of death. This also leads into Porco's cursed appearance -- addressed in secondary ways that hint at why it happened, without an explanation as to how -- as well as his long-running relationship with Gina and the clique they once belonged to, both impacted by the pilot's experiences during the war. Underneath Miyazaki's fanciful perspective and doting references to aeronautics of the time, something the director further and more directly explores in The Wind Rises, lies a somewhat somber character piece about a man dealing with self-interested regret underneath the visage of a swine.
Naturally, there are optimistic ideas that offset Porco Rosso's downbeat reflections, most of which emerge when the pilot finally arrives at the hangar where his plane's customization will take place. Alongside his interactions with a young and promising aeronautical engineer, Fio, and her devotion to making Porco's plane the best it can be, Miyazaki spins a subtle thematic story about experience and inspiration that speeds along a collision course towards Porco's rivalries. Fio's another in Ghibli's storied history of convincing, independent female characters: knowledgeable beyond her years, unpersuaded by stock feminine pursuits, even nonchalant in her grip on her body image. Her interactions with Porco are compelling since they aren't reliant on any grand narrative purpose; she's not likely to make too much of a dent in Porco's emotional armor, and it's hard to imagine how he'd make her any more passionate about aviation and engineering than she already is. They simply savor and respect each other, making for a delightful platonic duo.
Ultimately, though, the rousing escapades of the bounty hunter are what navigate Porco Rosso to its big, brassy conclusion: an exciting, if dubious, one-on-one confrontation between the pig and his nemesis in the richly-detailed expanses of the Adriatic. Despite the mawkish spectacle of it all, it's hard not to get wrapped up in the culmination of Porco's strained journey from the past to the present, chiefly because the impacts it all has upon his character are largely unclear up to that point. There's a looming sense of curiosity over how, or whether, the anthropomorphic pig will be rewarded following his anti-heroic clashes with pirates and hot-shot pilots, whether he'll get the girl or whether the magical curse will dissipate. Miyazaki finds an appropriately bittersweet response to these expectations within his versatile adventure film, staying the course with a mix of maturity and joie de vivre that stays true to what differentiates it from most of the Japanese director's other works, saying less and relishing more.
Porco Rosso swoops into action on Blu-ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment in the company's now-anticipated packaging: a standard dual-disc case holds the Blu-ray and a duplication of the previous DVD for Disc Two, both with appealing disc artwork. A cardboard slipcase, with nicely raised lettering over the film's title and the Studio Ghibli logo, replicates the front and back designs with slightly shiny elements on both, while a gold spine continues the aesthetic alongside the other releases. Disney Movie Rewards slips have been tossed in, too; no digital copy arrives with the Blu-ray.
Video and Audio:
In the visual department for their Studio Ghibli releases, Walt Disney Home Entertainment have developed a respectable track record in their presentations of the animation studio's releases, sporting sharp lines, lively yet accurate colors, and a respectably clean print with awareness of the artwork's original intent. Porco Rosso's caliber of quality stands about on-par with Disney's recent excellent treatment of Kiki's Delivery Service, correctly framed at 1.85:1 for a 1080p AVC that impressively defies the film's vintage. The invigorating blues of the Adriatic sea frame the vivid shades of color that pour out from the many-hued planes involved, especially Porco Rosso's glaringly red paint job, while the rapid swoops of planes and the gunfire impacting their structures are sharply-detailed and aware of the brisk motion. Darker scenes at Gina's hotel and at the plane hangar make their details and semi-hidden shades seen, while human skin tones and Porco Rosso's distinctively piggy pink are satisfyingly solid. No distortion, aside from a few film blips, and the constant natural appearance of the artwork itself -- grain and all -- make for a splendid animated Blu-ray.
Similarly to Kiki's Delivery Service, Porco Rosso coasts along with a series of 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, preserving the film's original intentions with the Japanese track and including the divergent, yet charismatic and mostly well-performed English-language dub featuring Michael Keaton and Cary Elwes. And just like the prior Studio Ghibli release, its strengths come in the dialogue above its sound effects: vocal clarity remains crystal-clear, with Porco Rosso's lower voice properly exploring the lower-frequency quadrant, while sound effects of gunfire and explosions show their age with less force and more general thinness. Vintage effects like old radios and telephones sport a pleasing twang that's supported by the track's buoyancy, while the rush of planes creates nice, full separation across the front channels. Both the English and Japanese tracks have their strengths and weaknesses, despite their relative similarities: the English track's sound effects are a tad more robust and prominent, but it comes at the expense of increased volume and some mild clipping/distortion (along with the drastically simplified translation). Overall, though, they're both quite suitable. A French 2.0 dub and subtitle track are also available.
The subtitle arrangement should be pleasing to most parties, too: just like the DVD, Porco Rosso comes with two (unadvertised) subtitle tracks, including a "traditional" standard English translation and the English SDH option that lifts the text directly from the dub. The tracks really couldn't be more different, with the dub consistently leaving out details, streamlining the language, even changing certain minor aspects of the film (such as Curtis being from Texas). The standard English subtitles, however, are nuanced and comprehensive, mentioning things like the specific section rates paid to Porco Rosso and Curtis' accurate hometown in Alabama, and appear to have a few minor grammatical tweaks here and there that get them to a more accurate rendition. Both are presented in clear, unobtrusive white text that hovers tolerably high within the frame, making for a highly pleasing follow-along experience.
Porco Rosso was one of the prominent Ghibli films that didn't see a DVD re-release in 2010, leaving it without any newly-produced extras while they were conducting their interviews with Hayao Miyazaki and the studio's collaborators. Considering that, it's not too much of a surprise that the only supplements available with the Blu-ray are those previously available on the 2005 DVD: a Behind the Microphone (7:05, 4x3) featurette showing off Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast enthusiastically recording and commenting on the process of voicing Miyazaki's work; and a brief Interview with Producer Toshio Suzuki (3:22 , 4x3), which also includes some nifty behind-the-scenes looks at the studio itself. They've also carried over the full-length Original Japanese Storyboards (1:33:18, 16x9), as well as the Original Japanese Trailers (7:55, 16x9 HD).
Who'd have thought that a film about a flying pig would end up being one of Hayao Miyazaki's most mature and grounded pieces of work? That's precisely the case with Porco Rosso, though, where a straightforward, exciting tale about a veteran bounty-hunter pilot touches on some ruminations about mourning the past and fulfilling one's duty. Aside from Porco's accursed facade and a pertinent dream-space scene, the film exists within the space of reality in the gap between WWI and WWII, soaring above the Adriatic sea for brisk dogfights and landing along the Italian coast while the titular hero gets a few improvements -- and meets a delightful new friend. Realism does give way to lighthearted aspirations, though, which are more noticeable in such a sensible setting, but there's no reason to dwell too long on them when the adventure's this thrilling and the characters as layered as Porco and his allies. Disney's Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, which makes up for the lack of new special features. It doesn't get too high up on my list of favorites from Miyazaki's oeuvre, but its characters, representation of the period, and all-around energy are certainly very Highly Recommended.