Note: This review is for the film in its original Japanese-language version.
Porco Rosso – Japanese Release (July 17-19)
Porco Rosso soars above 1992’s animated competition by being a modern fantasy that never loses sight of its story.
Undoubtedly, those reading this may be familiar with the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Even if someone hasn’t seen his film, they might have seen merchandise based on his directed results. Miyazaki films are becoming akin in recognizability to the Disney Animated Canon (Studio Ghibli as a whole). That would be more shocking if it were not for the overt popularity of anime, even more so now than in 1992. This one is a bit of a cheat as I’m going off Porco Rosso’s Japanese opening rather than its U.S. release. That would not happen until 2003, with a new dub overseen by Walt Disney Pictures. Nope, this was released July 18th, 1992. Wait, then why is it here? Because Mo’ Money is not worth the time to discuss. It breaks the “number one film must be reviewed” rule, but who remembers Mo’ Money?
Porco Rosso has the more memorable present. Porco (Shūichirō Moriyama) is a bounty hunter fighting against air pirates around the Mediterranean sea. He is cursed with the appearance of a pig sometime after being a fighter pilot in World War I. One night while perusing the Hotel Adriano’s bar, he notices Donald Curtis (Akio Otsuka), an American pilot teaming up with air pirates for their next move. Curtis is also interested in Gina (Tokiko Kato), a singer at the hotel who has affection for Porco. Unfortunately, Curtis, who leaves the hotel, gets shot down and must get a new engine. He comes across the young mechanic Fio (Akemi Okamura) but is reluctant to take her up on the offer to rebuild the plane. Yet, with Curtiss desperate to go toe-to-toe in a dogfight with Poroco, Porco must determine if he should continue the fight or settle for something more grounded.
Porco Rosso is one of the best-animated films of ’92, if not the best. Though there is a contender in November that I adore, Porco Rosso outdoes it in parts with a fantastical set-up, sweeping animation, and a heart to it that may be unexpected. But, of course, it’s hilarious when it decides to be.
The idea of the lead being a pig man is an interesting one. Someone who was cursed because, well, why not? Miyazaki himself was questioned about it, adding a brief scene to explain, but even with the explanation, it didn’t matter. It helps in one part to give a glimpse of his past self and nothing more. Miyazaki said this was a film for middle-aged men getting home from work wanting to relax and not overthink. With that in mind, he captured that notion to the letter.
Porco is a bit of a jaded hard-ass with a good idea about him. The way Moriyama voices him exemplifies that by not being obnoxious or bold. He has a hardened heart but maintains loyalty to his beliefs. There’s a reason why the line “Better a pig than a fascist” still resonates with not wanting to sell out to the Italian Air Force or bow to them. He is admirable even if he can be sexist toward women (an attitude that changes as the film continues). Fio is the reason for that. When she is introduced, she is a perfect dysfunctional companion to Porco. Porco sees a naive young woman, but Fio is more than that. She’s whip-smart with planes hanging with the best mechanics around. Fio comes from a long line of mechanics who are also all women. She’s cute as a button, with Porco growing to see her as a long-lost daughter. Okamura’s voice compliments Fio’s personality by showing that she is strong-willed and courageous. She even manages to corral and humble the air pirates with her words.
Same with Gina at the hotel, which is lovelorn for Porco, but does not let that bring her down in any way, being wiser, having gone through many bad experiences with pilots. She’s as hardened as Porco but is still hopeful for love. It’s never seen as a detriment to her either. Donald Curtiss is a perfect foil for the handsome, dashing American who would be deemed a hero in other movies. He is an ideal asshat, but it works to such a significant effect. I love him so much. He has a Gaston quality to him that works perfectly. He never comes across as a total dick either.
When it comes to the animation, this is a standout in the Studio Ghibli canon. It shines brightest in the dogfighting and flight scenes. The vast openness of the air and space is captured in wonderfully drawn canvases. One simple wide shot of Porco and Curtiss flying from the dark clouds into the bright blue sky could be a framed painting. The fluidity of the chase in the air gives the sense of being in the moment. It’s on par with scenes out of Top Gun: Maverick. The final dogfight is a spectacular setpiece going from the sky to the sea. Seeing the ripples and waves of the water, the whooshing of umbrellas blowing away, and spectators holding hats in the breeze give all the weight to it. One of the most stunning scenes involves an army of planes flying into the unknown great beyond with a mixture of blue sky, shimmering starlight, and a bed of clouds. That scene alone is also worth the price of seeing this film.
The humor is also exemplified by animation having a slapstick quality to it. Miyazaki and crew seem to be inspired by the classic cartoons of the 1930s (much like Astro Boy prior) to give it. The air pirates could have battled Popeye back then with their big grins and brute quality. It’s fast and furious when showing people get hit, the expressions, and even a chaotic fistfight towards the end. That’s not to say it goes away entirely from the style of what one expects from a Ghibli film. Porco Rosso is more on par with Kiki’s Delivery Service than My Neighbors the Yamadas.
The film is also quite romantic when it comes down to it. Porco and Gina have a romance that lingers in the wind,, with Porco seemingly reluctant to accept someone who may love him. Porco feels he is not worth the acclaim for most of the film. However, Gina sees otherwise as she still sees the man she loves and longs for. When Porco passes by the hotel to say hi, Gina reflects on their first flight together. She’s scared but excited as Porco knows he is there to protect her from harm. However, when they talk, their history comes out conversation, a history Poroco is reluctant to continue. It is bittersweet considering how this film ends, but it’s the bittersweet that is realistic. It’s always in the background but holds so much weight.
As for the English dub, it’s one of the ones that works. Bad English dubs are plenty, but Studio Ghibli dubs seem to be the exception to the rule, thanks to the “No Cuts” katana in the 90s. As Porco’s voice, Michael Keaton is an outstanding choice in capturing his weathered jadedness. Kimberly Williams Paisley as Fio is also fantastic, capturing the youthfulness and courage she has with adorable quality. Same for Susan Egan capturing the strength in Gina, but the mature, wise quality. Think of it as a reprisal of her work as Megara in Hercules, but with more hope. The only detriment I can give is Cary Elwes as Curtiss. Elwes can do a great American accent. Yet, he is using a Southern accent, which is hilarious. Maybe it was intentional to make the handsome Curtiss have a bumpkin quality to him. If not, then what the heck?
Porco Rosso soars above the other animated films of 1992 by being a modern fantasy that never loses sight of its story. From stellar animation that defies gravity to a heart firmly on its sleeve, Porco Rosso shines as a masterwork from Miyazaki and his team. It’s in my personal top five from the studio’s canon that I never tire of seeing.
Revue Rating: 5 out of 5
Next time, July’s films come to a close with the madcap effects showcase with a comedic genius and Oscar royalty duking it out. After that, it’s Death Becomes Her.