Synopsis: Trained as an ace fighter pilot for the Italian Air Force during World War I, pig-headed (literally) Porco Rosso now answers to no one but himself – and anyone with enough cash to hire his services as a bounty hunter, of course. He maintains a friendly rivalry with the local “air pirates,” bandits in sea planes who swipe their booty from passing ships. Instead of joining their band of merry thieves, Porco makes his money stealing backtheir plunder on behalf of the victims! Yet after dark they always put their differences aside and come together to share a drink at the bar of the Hotel Adriano, owned by the lovely and tragic Gina. But when hotshot American pilot Curtis arrives on the scene, he makes it his mission to take down the meddlesome Porco once and for all. With the help of his immature yet skilled mechanic and co-pilot Fio, can Porco defeat Curtis in the ultimate dogfight – and finally win the affections of the beautiful Gina?
This is my second contribution to this very worthy blogathon, as well as the second entry in my own mini-marathon of Studio Ghibli reviews. I apologize for skipping around in time a bit; I had planned to review these lesser-known (though by no means obscure) Ghibli films in chronological order, meaning Grave of the Fireflies (1988) should be next after Nausicaä (1984), but as I am not yet emotionally prepared to tackle that one, Porco Rosso it is. Like Nausicaä, Porco is based on a manga penned by Hayao Miyazaki himself, Hikōtei Jidai (The Age of the Flying Boat), originally published in three parts in Model Graphix, a monthly magazine for scale model enthusiasts. Miyazaki also directs (which may sound like a given, but remember Isao Takahata directed two of the first seven Ghibli films). The film takes place between the two World Wars in and around the Adriatic Sea; the location was intended to be more specifically indicated as Croatia, but the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia during production prompted the filmmakers to leave the location a bit more ambiguous. Still, of the films directed by Miyazaki, having a clearly-defined historical and geographical setting makes Porco Rosso unusually reality-based. Aside from the fact that, you know, he’s a pig.
Why Porco is a pig is not a question the film ever explicitly answers. There are hints about a curse being placed on him as punishment for defecting from the Italian Air Force; Porco himself even states at one point that he’d “much rather be a pig than a fascist.” I even tried to draw my own thematic connections to Circe of Greek mythology – same part of the world, right? – but came up blank. However, I don’t think of this as a failing on the film’s part; in fact, I think it was deliberate. You are drawn into the story by Porco, initially because you expect the mystery as to why he was turned into a pig to be revealed. Before you know it, you begin to really like the guy and care about what happens to him. The mystery of the curse is the hook, but once you realize that being a pig isn’t even the most interesting thing about Porco, the fact that it is left ambiguous won’t bother you.
The animation in this film is flawless, which always goes without saying with Studio Ghibli, but is definitely something not to be taken for granted. This is how beautiful animation can be when you don’t cut corners or overuse money-saving shortcuts. The whole film has a warm, airy feeling to it; you can almost feel the summer breeze wafting off the sea. Many of the aerial shots could be postcards, and watching the film does feel like a mini-European summer holiday. This is purely escapist fare, and the conflicts faced by the main characters are not nearly as dire as those usually faced by Ghibli protagonists (even if they are in the realm of fantasy). While I don’t think the story suffers for it – there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, and I was definitely relieved to watch something stress-free in these very stressful times – I do feel it makes the film a little less compelling and impactful than Miyazaki’s best works, and is a more forgettable experience in that respect. Still, the story is exciting, the setting is gorgeous, and the characters are strong and likable. If we had a dead of winter in Southern California, this would be the first movie I’d reach for to warm my chilly bones.
Porco Rosso (1992) – 4/5 stars
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