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Porco Rosso

(2015) *** 1/2 Pg
94 min. Studio Ghibli. Director: Hayao Miyazaki. Cast: Sanshi Katsura, Shûichirô Moriyama, Tokiko Katô.

/content/films/4766/1.jpgAn elephant that flies by flapping his giant ears. A puppet that transforms into a boy. In the context of other classic animation that indoctrinated me as a kid, there's nothing especially odd about the concept of Porco Rosso, which tells the story of a man cursed by transformation into a pig. And yet, to discover Porco Rosso as an adult is to understand that there's something deliciously weird about it. Certainly, there's no denying that writer-director Hayao Miyazaki's idiosyncratic auteurism, both in eccentric content and style, entertains in the most delightful way. And indeed these qualities are in full evidence in Porco Rosso, the 1992 flying-ace film (and blockbuster in its native Japan) that intriguingly prefigures Miyazaki's 2013 flight epic The Wind Rises.

Yep, Porco Rosso ("the Crimson Pig") isn't just any man-turned-swine. He's also an Italian WWI veteran fighter pilot who's the scourge of air pirates over the Adriatic Sea. Though Disney, thanks to superfan John Lasseter, distributes Studio Ghibli films like this one stateside, this is not the sort of story the studio built its reputation on. Voiced by Shuichiro Moriyama in the Japanese-language version and Michael Keaton in the English-language version, Porco gruffly goes about his business as a mercenary who routinely ruins the plans of the likes of the Mamma Aiuto ("Mamma, Help!") gang, pausing only to arrange repairs to his plane and have soulful conversations with the quietly smitten Madame Gina (Tokiko Kato; Susan Egan).

Porco's tough exterior slowly gives way to the women in his life, both Gina and young mechanic Fio Piccolo (Akemi Okamura; Kimberly Williams-Paisley), granddaughter of garage owner Mr. Piccolo (Sanshi Katsura; David Ogden Stiers). Both women touch something deep in the pilot, stoking flashback memories of his wartime encounters with mortality and suggesting to him that he needn't necessarily be resigned to getting his only enjoyment from taking to the skies in daredevil fashion between grim drinking sessions at Gina's Hotel Adriano.

Further impetus to break out of the doldrums comes from American ace Donald Curtis (Akio Otsuka; Cary Elwes), who harbors Hollywood dreams and designs on Gina's heart. When Porco and Curtis go toe to toe, a wager puts Fio's life in the balance: should Porco win a dogfight duel, Curtis will cover Porco's repair debts, and should Curtis win, he will take Fio's hand in marriage. The somewhat ramshackle plotting suits Miyazaki's breath-of-fresh-air style, which follows moods like changing winds. Action-comedy yields to melancholy drama or moony romance or swoony blue-sky pastoral before roaring back into action-comedy again.

Through it all, Miyazaki captivates, largely through beautiful hand-drawn animation and character design that's flexible enough to encompass elegant strokes (suited to Madame Gina) and a deliberately squiggly roughness (perfect for the roughly defined personalities of the airheaded air pirates). The "cinematography" of the flying sequences proves particularly extraordinary, whether in a thrills-and-spills vein or a poetic one. And though the story touches on politics and even profundities of the human experience, Miyazaki's light touch and overriding sense of fun promise that children of all ages will give themselves over to ninety-four minutes of fantasy that do a heart good.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, Japanese DTS-HD M

Street date: 2/3/2015

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Aside from the odd speck of dust (which only adds to the palpable celluloid charm of this handmade film), Porco Rosso gets an ideal A/V treatment from its Disney Blu-ray release. The properly framed 1.85:1 image is never less than clearly defined and accurately rendered in color and contrast. I saw no hint of digital artifacting, and the presentation is naturalistic in those colors and in overall character, never taking on a "boosted" video sheen or appearance of repainted colors to detract from the artists' original intent. Blessedly, audio comes in both English and Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo mixes, allowing parents of tykes to opt for the excellent English-language dub to best serve the littluns, while also making available the film in its original conception, native language intact with optional English subtitles. Both tracks sport clear, crisp dialogue; a full-bodied feel in music and effects; and an utter faithfulness to the source material, which hasn't been unnecessarily tricked out into 5.1 surround.

Bonus features are humble but welcome, beginning with "Behind The Microphone" (7:05, SD). This featurette finds the English-language cast (Michael Keaton, et al) commenting on character, process, and the art of Miyazaki.

"Original Japanese Storyboards"
(1:33:18, HD) re-presents the entire film (with Japanese audio track and English subtitles) through the original storyboard art.

Rounding out the disc are the "Original Japanese Theatrical Trailers" (7:55, HD) and a brief "Interview With Producer Toshio Suzuki" (3:22, SD) that also provides B-roll glimpses into Studio Ghiblit's work space.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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