PORCO ROSSO – Blu-ray review

What do you get when you cross “Casablanca” with “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Dawn Patrol,” and “Beauty and the Beast”?

If you animate it and throw in your own vision (and a few seaplane pirates), you get “Porco Rosso”—in English, the “Crimson Pig.”

Hayao Miyazaki loves airplanes and magic, and we get a heaping helping of both in this 1992 film, which is new to Blu-ray come February 3.

The title of this feature alludes to The Red Baron, and “Porco Rosso” is as heavily atmospheric as it is quirky. It plays out like a post-WWI movie about fighter pilots or an ill-fated love story like “Casablanca,” and there are tropes and paradigms here that we recognize—like the jaded, 1920’s hero who carries the weight of being the only pilot to survive the biggest dogfight of all during WWI, and who resembles a trenchcoat-wearing Sam Spade or any other tough-talking, drinking and smoking private eye.

Like Hemingway’s war-wounded hero from “Sun,” his scars are both psychological and physical—except that the scar Marco (Porco Rosso) has to bear is his apparently sudden transformation into a pig, which occurred before the action picks up. “Porco Rosso” is so heavily realistic that when you add the matter-of-fact detail that the main pilot  is a pig who was once a human, you’ve suddenly pushed the throttle forward into the realm of magical realism. Everyone is just so accepting of the “magic.”

I’ve always appreciated the artistry of a Miyazaki film, but I have to say that I’ve rarely loved a Miyazaki film. But I do “Porco Rosso,” and it turns out that I’m not alone. When Eddie Feng wrote a review of the DVD release for Movie Met (then DVD Town) back in 2005, he said, “Given how much I love ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service,’ I was surprised to find myself enjoying ‘Porco Rosso’ as much as my personal favorite. ‘Kiki’ still is #1 in my book when it comes to Hayao Miyazaki, but this movie is a close second. ‘Porco Rosso’ is possibly one of the best animated features ever made.”

I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly a highly accomplished and entertaining film that’s rich with allusions and atmosphere, as well as plot and characters that feel more “real” than animated. As a result, I felt more emotionally invested than I usually do with anime.

Porco (voiced by Michael Keaton in the dubbed version) is making a living as a fly-for-hire seaplane fighter who has a contract with a commercial shipping magnate to engage seaplane pirates if they threaten the ships. But it’s all very gallant, and just as fighter pilots had respect for each other during WWI (it was, after all, a small fraternity, no matter how many countries the pilots represented) Porco and the pirates drink at the same establishment—the equivalent of “Rick’s,” run by Gina, who, like Bogie’s character, has a history with the other main character. Their lives get more complicated, though, when the pirates hire an American ace to take him out. Curtis (voiced in the dubbed version by Cary Elwes) hopes to carve a name for himself and go on to become a Hollywood star—another allusion to Errol Flynn, whom he vaguely resembles?

The Italian government is after Porco, and in an engaging sideplot so is the teenage granddaughter of his airplane mechanic-designer. But Porco, like any good Hemingway hero, lives by a code that’s just a little more honorable than the rest of the world—though he does drink, smoke, and “womanize.” Or rather, he did.

As Eddie noted in his review, there’s an epic battle between Porco and Curtis, and a poignant scene in which Marco watches the airplanes and the pilots that were downed in battle all riding a jet stream to heaven. But there are plenty of smaller scenes that are just as memorable, like a song that Gina sings in her place. And there are big issues swirling around, in addition to the many allusions to other films and novels. As a result, “Porco Rosso” is indeed one of Miyazaki’s most successful films, and probably my favorite anime movie because it IS so richly textured.

If there were any problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, I didn’t notice. Colors were nicely saturated, edges were crisply defined, and the level of detail was what you’d expect from Disney and Studio Ghibli. And yet there’s still a hint of filmic grain, which adds to the atmosphere. “Porco Rosso” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The default audio, if you simply press “play movie,” is the dubbed English 2.0 DTS-HDMA version featuring the voice talents of Keaton, Elwes, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers, and Brad Garrett. But purists can heave a sigh of relief, because it’s also possible to watch the film in Japanese 2.0 DTS-HDMA with English subtitles. English SDH is also an option, and there’s a French language track as well.

This combo pack comes with a DVD, and the only other bonus features are the ones that were presented on the DVD:  A “Behind the Microphone” feature on the dubbed version voice talents, original Japanese storyboards and trailers, and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki. They’re decent, but not spectacular.

Bottom line:
If I saw the cover of “Porco Rosso” in my favorite retail store, I honestly don’t think I’d be tempted to buy it. A pig in a trenchcoat seems too close to a pig in a poke. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be my favorite anime movie of all time.