"Porco Rosso": That Magnificent Pig in His Flying Machine
One wonders what Hollywood studios would have made of animated leading man Marco. He’s a short, fat, mustached Italian bounty hunter who just happens to be a pig (literally). Comical hijinks ensue, right? Yes, and fart jokes, thank you DreamWorks. But hold on a moment. Marco’s no comedian, and he’s not even all that sociable. He is a mature action hero, more so than any of the Incredibles. I suspect Hollywood would have quickly sent him back for a rewrite, but legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki gives him wings to fly in Studio Ghibli’s charmingly eccentric Porco Rosso (the Japanese title is Kurenai no Buta, or The Crimson Pig).
Apart from Marco’s rather conspicuous snout, this is an unusually conventional adventure for Miyazaki, known for bending space and time and marching a wide array of magical lands and creatures past the camera. Porco’s a straightforward action story, with hints of romance and comedy, told in the realistic if slightly idealized Mediterranean Sea of the 1930s. Next to more recent epic projects like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away it sounds positively vanilla. However, a more lighthearted approach actually makes for a refreshing change, and one needn’t dig far to find the usual standard of rich characters and dramatic thrills.
Marco, the porco rosso, is a pilot who flies a beat up seaplane to chase down airborne criminals. The pirate community is most irate about his success and hopes that the newly arrived American ace pilot Curtiss can take down the meddlesome Marco. Both are enamored with the alluring Madame Gina, singer at the Hotel Adriano lounge where pirates and bounty hunters mingle peaceably in their off time. Marco and Gina have been friends for years, since before he was mysteriously transformed from human to pig. She is sore at Marco for constantly placing himself in danger instead of settling down, and she debates whether to reveal how much she cares for him. Marco flies to Milan to get his plane overhauled, but is intercepted and shot down by Curtiss en route. Miraculously he survives and manages to get the wreck of his plane to Milan, where his friend Piccolo the mechanic and Piccolo’s granddaughter Fio repair and revamp it. Teenage Fio turns out, to Marco’s great surprise, to be a design wiz, and she directs a huge team of female relatives as they rebuild the plane. Marco’s old Air Force buddy Ferrarin warns him that the authorities are on the lookout for him. He escapes in the nick of time, reluctantly taking on Fio as his onboard mechanic. However, a final confrontation with the pirates awaits.
This is one of Miyazaki’s less message-heavy films. His familiar female empowerment agenda does show up again, just in case anyone had forgotten how capable women are in the years since Spirited Away. Fio’s an engineering genius and her legion of assistants complete all the tough work of the repairs without needing a single man. For their part, the absent men seem to be preoccupied with political and military intrigue, pursuits which the film views as rather less essential. It’s always interesting to note the different sensibilities of U.S. and Japanese animation, especially as Disney continues to stamp their name on anime films. One image that must have given them pause is the group of cute little preschool girls playfully clustering around the pirates as they madly fire away with very real machine guns at Marco’s plane. In fact, Disney did in fact see fit to soften portions of the dialogue for the dub. Marco’s line to the pirates “I’ll kill all of you” becomes “I’d hate to put you jerks out of business.”
Marco is fairly low-key as heroes go. Not much for quips or boasts, he is the consummate gentleman, laid back until someone gets his blood up and the gloves come off. His gruff deadpan delivery matches his demeanor, and I couldn’t help thinking that, while unique, this character could’ve used a little more pizzazz. Fio is the typical Miyazaki heroine, brave, capable, compassionate and taking no guff from anyone. However, she retains more of her girlish charm than uber-warriors like Nausicaa and Mononoke, making her a more fun and believable character. Madame Gina is a character entirely too complex to appear in an American animated film. Alternately seductive, tough, wistful, and tender, she is an unusually mature leading lady who is far more than a pretty face. Given the relative gravity of the leads, it’s up to goofballs Curtiss and the lead pirate Boss to lighten things up. Curtiss is not unlike a lighthearted Errol Flynn, a vain and self-centered but nonetheless likeable playboy. The irritable, bumbling Boss is another of Miyazaki’s menacing criminals with a heart of gold, like Dola in Laputa.
Unfortunately, Porco Rosso gets a rather uninspired English dub, especially compared to simultaneous releases The Cat Returns and Nausicaa. Michael Keaton as Marco and Cary Elwes as Curtiss are the only notable performers, the former sounding bored stiff and the latter going way over the top with a corny Texan drawl.
Porco Rosso is definitely a film for aviation fans with beautiful aerial shots, picturesque landscapes, and thrilling dogfights. Indeed, the film was originally conceived as a promotional piece for an airline. Perhaps the airline intended to push Mediterranean travel packages, for the sea comes off as an enchanting, almost magical place. There aren’t any of Miyazaki’s mind-blowing visuals in this film, but the great attention to period detail compensates for the lack of turnip spirits. The colorful prop aircraft make one long for the days when there were no computers involved in flying. An excellent soaring score that embodies the spirit of flight accompanies all the aerial action.
Though it may seem a little slow for its bulk, the film gets downright wacky in the third act. I hesitate to give too many details, but the hilarious second confrontation between Marco and Curtiss is not to be missed. This madcap battle royale goes from slinging lead to hurling wrenches to throwing punches, with many a bruise in-between. All pretension chucked out the window; this bout of rampant silliness alone may be enough to justify a purchase.
The special features are a bit on the lean side, though. Behind the Microphone delivers the standard interviews with the English voice talent about recording, while a very brief interview with producer Toshio Suzuki reveals that the character of Marco incorporates a lot of the meticulous and free-spirited Miyazaki himself. Also included are the Japanese trailers and the original storyboards, set to the English dub. Unlike the rather rough art displayed on The Cat Returns storyboards, here there are some very detailed aircraft drawings that are fun to look at.
Porco Rosso is without question a charming little story, but there is some doubt as to its marketability in this country. There are so many slow stretches in the film’s middle section that kids may be reaching for their remotes, and without their patronage the apparent silliness of the premise will probably ward off most of the adult crowd. Even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest hour, though, there’s an engaging joyride hiding here with a great payoff for the patient viewer. With Miyazaki as your co-pilot, the journey is always fun.