Though Hayao Miyazaki made a graceful retirement from the world of hand-drawn animated features in 2013 with The Wind Rises, eschewing many of the fantastical elements that had become his signature in favor of a more realistic approach to the life and legacy of Jiro Horikoshi, many of his films are just now finding their way to Blu-ray, both in Japan and the United States. One of the recent high-definition upgrades is Porco Rosso, the film that first gave us some insight into Hayao’s love of aeronautical engineering and which, like The Wind Rises, plays down the fantastic in favor of highlighting the majesty air travel used to embody in a bygone era. Throw in some sky pirates, a protagonist cursed with the face of a pig, and some beautiful animation and you have a film worthy of addition to any Blu-ray collection.
Set during World War II, Porco Rosso follows the ace fighter pilot formerly known as Marco Pagot, who was cursed long ago to look like an anthropomorphic pig during his adventures bounty hunting sky pirates and evading the Italian army who are a bit upset with him for leaving. With an established reputation as the best bounty hunter around and the fear of every pirate in the Mediterranean, Porco has things pretty good until the winds change. The arrival of Curtis, a hotshot American pilot, and a shift in policies towards sky pirates sees Porco grounded and without much money to get himself back in the air. If he wants to even the score, he’ll have to sneak back into Italy, rebuild his plane, and make a triumphant return – while maybe making a friend along the way.
When all is said and done, Porco Rosso seems to lack a number of the themes common to Miyazaki’s films: there’s no real battle of man against nature; we only see the consequences of a curse, not the cause or the end, and it’s basically just accepted; and the horrors of war aren’t demonized, but rather sadly acknowledged and then left behind as a mere anecdote. In fact, even the story itself is rather aimless. One moment it’s the story of a rivalry between Porco and Curtis for the attention of Gina, the next it’s about the budding friendship between Porco and the brilliant teenaged engineer Fio, and then it takes the logical conclusion of Curtis and Porco’s rivalry into a very weird but funny competition MC’ed by all of the sky pirates Porco made a living busting up. The shift from Miyazaki’s most common themes and the very loose plotting make Porco one of the director’s oddest creations, and yet it’s charming all the same.
Visually, Porco Rosso is still a masterpiece, even if the story is and themes are somewhat off, but there’s also something to be said for the Japanese and English dubbing. If you’re going to be a purist and watch it with the Japanese audio, then you’ll be watching the film as Hayao intended it when he released it back in 1992. However, if you choose to indulge in the English audio dub that Disney has brought us, you’re in for a treat. The English audio dub has Michael Keaton giving an understated but excellent performance as the reluctant porcine hero, with Cary Elwes playing Curtis as the suave jerk-we-love-to-hate character he’s perfected over the years. Kimberly Williams-Paisley drops a couple decades to play Fio and without knowing it’s her going in you’d swear it was someone much younger. Susan Egan stars as the underused love interest Gina, but the cherry on the sundae that is the cast for Porco Rosso is easily Brad Garrett as the head sky pirate who goes from a bumbling fool to an amusing and likeable side character by the end of the third act.
Porco Rosso might not be the strongest entry in the Studio Ghibli collection from a narrative perspective, but the animation, the audio dubs, and Hayao’s clear passion for flying machines elevate it to become a memorable favorite. Instead, Porco Rosso feels more like a labor of love than Miyazaki’s greatest masterpieces; what it lacks in some areas, it makes up for with raw love for the subject matter. That said, the very sudden and rather unsatisfying ending is still a bit infuriating, even 23 years later.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The Blu-ray includes a featurette on the creation of the audio dub, the original Japanese trailer, storyboards for the film, and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki.
"Porco Rosso" is on sale February 3, 2015 and is rated PG. Adventure, Animation, Fantasy. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Starring Brad Garrett, Cary Elwes, Kimberly Williams Paisley, Michael Keaton, Susan Egan.