Porco Rosso is one of director Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier animated features, and it has to be said one of the lesser works in his canon of films – although that’s less a criticism of Porco Rosso itself than an acknowledgement of just how many all-time classics Miyazaki has been involved with over the years.
An odd film, in many ways Porco Rosso feels like it’s little more than a small box that Miyazaki uses to safeguard some of his most treasured keepsakes. There’s certainly a lot of familiar elements in it that we know from Miyazaki’s other films, such as his love of aviation that would find a fuller expression in 2013’s The Wind Blows. His love of the environment is also present here, although expressed in some stunningly gorgeous vistas (many from the air) of the islands around the Adriatic and Mediterranean that do away with the need for an overt ecological message such as we get in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Some of the character designs are also very familiar, with apprentice airplane designer Fio looking the spitting image of the eponymous lead of Kiki’s Delivery Service.
That said, Porco Rosso has a one-off in its own lead character Porco Rosso. The Crimson Pig turns out to be a World War I fighter pilot by the name of Marco Pagot who has been cursed to spend the rest of his days as a human-sized anthropomorphised pig – shades of what happens to Chihiro’s parents at the start of Miyazaki’s most celebrated feature Spirited Away. There s surprisingly little use made or even mention of this condition in the film itself, and the point of Marco’s condition seems to be to allow him to make some 1930s noirish wisecracks with a harder and more cynical edge that we’ve come to typically expect from Miyazki’s heroes, since any barbed comment from him is in invariably followed by the addition of “I’m a pig” which makes as laugh at the double meaning. (Michael Keaton provides the voice in the English dub and he’s in full Batman growl mode for the performance.)
Fortunately the porky transformation hasn’t blunted Marco’s skills as a flier and he earns his keep as a bounty hunter foiling raids in the area carried out by a band of airborne pirates. Alas, Marco’s rickety plane fails him when he’s ambushed by an American flying ace called Curtis who has been hired by the pirates to rid them of the meddling pig. After crashlanding, Marco goes to Milan to get his plane repaired and then returns to have a rematch with Curtis.
It’s a great basic set-up – but actually, that’s the whole film. Whatever other treasures Miyazaki kept in his little box of treasures, a plot was not among them. This film goes out of its way to come up with a promising scenario but then just when you expect things to start developing it comes to a sudden halt, no longer interested in going any further with it all. The matter of Marco’s porcine curse is only very lightly explained, and never resolved or reversed (although a line in the English dub suggests that a kiss from Fio may have succeeded in doing just that.) His tentative relationship with local hotel owner Gina never goes anywhere and it’s hard to really see the point of the character of Fio at all once the pair leave Milan. The ending – if one can truly call it that, rather than “the end titles roll” – leaves Marco flying off into the blue horizon to escape the clutches of the airforce of the fascist Italian government who want to conscript the pilot for their own military ends with a new war looming, but which Marco wants no part of. Does he manage to stay ahead of them? What does he go on to do? Who knows. He is and remains an international pig of mystery.
Perhaps the slightness of it all is the reason why Porco Rosso has never been seen as one of Miyazki’s greats, although that said it was the number one grossing movie at the Japanese box office in 1992. I suspect that says more about Japanese versus Western storytelling conventions and expectations than it does about the quality of the film itself. Certainly it makes you think that even the fluffiest Pixar and Disney films must be absolutely overburdened with plot and meaning by comparison.
None of this criticism (if it is indeed all that critical) is to suggest that the film is anything other than a delight to watch, especially for younger viewers but also with Miyazaki’s unique capacity to cast a spell over adults as well. It’s rather like going out for a walk on the most beautiful midsummer day and happening across a park you’ve never seen before. You go in and look around, not searching for anything in particular because you don’t know what’s there, but being delighted at every turn by some stunningly gorgeous new flower displaying such brilliant colours. After you’ve spent some time meandering around, it’s time to go home: you’ve achieved nothing of any substance in the 90 minutes you’ve been ambling around but does that really matter? Your soul has been washed clean and your step is lighter from the experience and the unexpected discoveries. Surely that’s exactly the sort of afternoon we all need now and again – and the film is in much the same vein.
On the Blu-ray: You might think that traditional animation wouldn’t benefit greatly from high definition, but the Studio Ghibli releases show how wrong that supposition is. The higher resolution gives the film an intense modern clarity thanks also to the vibrant colour, and the film has been impressively restored so that there is no sign of any damage or dirt in the frame. Visually it’s quite wonderful, so much so that the somewhat plainer audio presentation often gets quite a lot of negative comments being as it is a simple no-frills Dolby 2.0 mix. However that’s what the film was released with back in 1992, and it’s entirely appropriate to a film that isn’t trying to be anything more than it is so it’s really rather hard to criticise. I had no problems with it, nor with the English dub provided by Walt Disney Productions. The voice cast all give what seem to me to be spot-on performances of the translated script with Keaton a stand-out as Marco and supported by Cary Elwes as Curtis, Susan Egan as Gina and Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Fio.
If there is a weird side to the high definition, it’s in the disparity between the smoothness of movement provided by camera pans compared with the conspicuously jerky hand-drawn animation of the characters themselves. It’s clearly intentional and part of the Ghibli house style, but perhaps the precision of the Blu-ray makes it slightly more jarring between the two end results than it otherwise would have been.
Unfortunately the Blu-ray disc isn’t exactly loaded with extras: you can watch the film as the original Japanese Storyboards, and there are two brief featurettes (a three-minute interview with producer Toshio Suzuki plus a slightly longer look at the English voice cast going about their work) together with some trailers. You do however get the DVD version as well as the Blu-ray in the package. Considering how expensive the Ghibli Blu-rays have been pitched at in the UK and how that price has been sustained despite the disc being over a year old, the special features are rather scant. Fortunately there are some deals now emerging including a “2-for-£25” for the Blu-rays at HMV which is where I picked this up along with some of the other Ghibli titles that I previously had in standard definition only.