Reviewby Michael Toole,
In the late 1920s, above the blue Adriatic Sea and it many islands, air pirates circle, eager to hijack passing merchants and luxury liners. These rough men of the air and sea are kept in check by Porco Rosso, a bounty-hunting WWI ace cursed inexplicably with the visage of a pig. But Porco's plans to get his plane fixed up are thwarted by the pirates' new ace—a contract pilot from America named Donald Curtis. With the help of his mechanic's brilliant granddaughter Fio, Porco might yet rebuild the plane—but can he avoid the new Fascist government's secret police, eager to arrest him for desertion and press him and his considerable skills back into military service? Can he come back and beat Curtis in a one-on-one dogfight? Can he keep the promise he made with his old flame not to perish in the skies?
The movie theater needs innovative and challenging storytelling, but it also needs great adventures. Long before he'd turned into something of a tale-spinning avatar for natural and spiritual forces in conflict with the human world, Hayao Miyazaki was really good at depicting great adventures. This knack for high adventure turned up in some of his earliest animation work, like the big tank battle in The Flying Ghost Ship, and it would be writ large on his TV efforts, Future Boy Conan and Sherlock Hound. But by the time 1992 and Porco Rosso rolled around, Miyazaki was becoming better-known for his whimsical family-oriented crowd-pleasers My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Porco Rosso, adapted from the 1989 short manga “The Age of the Flying Boat,” which ran in the magazine Model Graphix, would be a suitable return to form.
The majority of Miyazaki's films aren't really about a specific time and place, but Porco Rosso is. It takes place above the pale blue Adriatic Sea sometime in the late 1920s (the manga places the year at 1929, but this isn't explicitly mentioned in the film), just far enough away from the Italian mainland to keep the Carabinieri from taking notice of the area's numerous legally dubious activities, like smuggling, unsanctioned aerial dogfighting, and air piracy. Miyazaki creates a very vivid, compelling world, a world where gentry take seaplanes and ferries to offshore dinner parties and gambling excursions. There's a scene early in the film when the title character pulls up to his friend Gina's hotel, a sort of pension that occupies almost all of a tiny island. As he maneuvers his plane towards the dock, a helper in a white coat arrives to assist him: a valet parker for seaplanes, of course.
What of Porco Rosso the man, the so-called “Crimson Pig?” He's a war veteran named Marco Pagot. (Coincidentally, there's an Italian animation producer with the same name. By pure coincidence, he'd worked with Miyazaki a decade earlier.) Porco flies a lethally fast red seaplane, which is called into service when the Mamma Aiuto gang of air pirates appears to harass freighters and pleasure cruises. We learn this quickly, as Porco closes in on his prey. The pirates, led by a hulking, bearded giant who looks like he just walked out of an E.C. Segar comic strip, have taken a bunch of schoolkids hostage, and it's here we learn that the fierce air pirates aren't quite up to the task of keeping a pack of unruly kindergartners occupied. Joe Hisaishi's musical score takes on a circus-like tone as Porco dauntlessly circles the pirate vessel, demanding the return of the loot and the prisoners. It's here that we also learn that Porco's bounty-hunting operation isn't exactly above-board, either: he offers the pirates a sliver of the loot in exchange for their surrender, so they can bounce back and give him quarry later. Is Porco Rosso running something of a protection racket?
The great unspoken aspect of the ace pilot is that he has, by way of some mysterious curse, the facial features of a pig—the floppy ears, the round face, the protruding snout, it's all there. The pig face seems absurd at first; it looks cartoonishly unreal compared to its meticulously realistic surroundings. But then you start to notice the way others around Porco treat it as a passing curiosity, at best. When pressed into combat or plied with a bottle of wine, the pilot's brow furrows charmingly, a rakish grin emerges, and then you realize that his curse is more of an inward burden than an outward one. Porco goes to see his old friend Gina, the hotel proprietress. Heavy with the news of her third husband's passing, she begs her friend not to die. But with the frustrated air pirates enlisting the services of an American ace to go after Porco, death might be in the cards, or at the very least, a really awesome plane battle.
If you're scratching your head over this film's razor-sharp depiction of amphibious aircraft, it's not strictly down to Miyazaki and his famous love of aviation. Italian seaplanes were among the fastest and most exciting planes in the world during the 1920s and 1930s; the Macchi MC-72 held the overall world speed record for several years, and is still the fastest seaplane on record. When Porco meets his American adversary, Donald Curtis (a great rival by the way-- a gallant, trash-talking caricature of Errol Flynn), he mentions the man's famous victory in the 1925 Schneider Cup. In real life, that trophy was claimed by future WWII hero Jimmy Doolittle—but he flew a Curtiss R3C-2 in the race. Clever man, that Miyazaki. The constant presence of seaplanes seems a bit quaint at times, but it's a perfect fit for an adventure film.
Looking past the dogfights over the shining Adriatic, what's Porco Rosso about, really? It turns out that there isn't that much under this film's hood. Compared to rich, thematically complex films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Porco Rosso feels stripped down, streamlined. But it hits some poignant notes—it's a movie about a haunted war vet who can't find the strength to put himself out of harm's way. It's about lost love, and about yearning—the movie opens with Porco listening to “Le Temps des Cerises” on the radio, a late-1800s chanson of love lost and yet pursued, and later in the film Gina reprises it. When Porco brings his wrecked plane to Milan to be fixed, he's forced to accept his mechanic's brilliant granddaughter Fio as his flight engineer, and so the film is also about an older man finding hope in the next generation.
I barely need to touch on this, but I will say that in 1080p, Porco Rosso shimmers and sparkles. Here is a movie that looked good on DVD, and now looks even better on Blu-Ray. There aren't any new extras for the blu-ray version, but since the original extras—the standard storyboard sequence, plus on-camera chats with theAmerican cast and the film's producer Mr. Suzuki—are included, that's fine. If I have any complaints about this release, it's just that we had to wait so damn long to get it. Actually, I have one other complaint, too—the cover art sucks. Seriously, just look at that logo, and the choice of key art. I suppose it isn't terrible, but it's nowhere near evocative enough of the film contained within. I'm very happy to have this movie in high definition, though.
Disney dub adaptations are always worth mentioning, and Porco Rosso is no exception. Since the film takes place in Europe, it feels natural to watch it in a multitude of languages. I like Shuichiro Moriyama's gruff snappiness as Porco in the Japanese version, so Michael Keaton's performance made for an interesting contrast. He turns in a more subdued delivery that improves as the film goes on and is surprisingly affecting, but not quite so effective as the weary, smoky reading of the great Jean Reno, who anchors my preferred version, the French dub! Thankfully, it's included in this release as well. Broadway veteran Susan Egan is a fine choice for Gina, and rises to the occasion, but she's just not as talented a singer as Tokiko Kato in the original Japanese version. Sitcom aunt Kimberly Williams-Paisley is my preferred Fio, however—she's full of energy and charm.
I haven't mentioned Fio much, because despite being a key character, she's kind of a cipher. She wins over both the reluctant Porco and the vengeful air pirates in record time, and while she does carry the movie into one of its best scenes, a riotous montage of the neighborhood ladies of every age converging on the shop to build the plane (the men are away looking for work, you see), we just never learn much about her. If the film makes one wrong move, it's in not affording Fio a little more time to develop.
Porco Rosso actually hit wide release as an in-flight movie, because it was partially bankrolled by Japan Airlines. It's a fitting connection, isn't it? After all, we all know that Hayao Miyazaki sits at a drafting table, crafting amazing stories and compelling animation, but he dreams of planes. In Porco Rosso, we see the airplane as transportation, and a tool of war, but also as a symbol of Marco's lingering wartime baggage, and ultimately the instrument of his redemption. Marco's seaplane is also the framework for a truly thrilling and heartwarming adventure. Even in the face of The Wind Rises, this is still Miyazaki's most personal film. I believe that Porco Rosso is what his dreams must look like.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Some of the most thrilling action animation ever; a winning and exhilarating adventure story.
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