It's no secret that animation legend Hayao Miyazaki is a lover of aviation. That love was expressed most purely in the director's elegiac The Wind Rises, which paid touching tribute to aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. That film came under fire for ignoring the global politics surrounding Horikoshi's life (he designed planes that were used by the Japanese military in WWII), but Miyazaki regarded Horikoshi's work from an artistic perspective: the man created something beautiful, even if his creation was ultimately used to accomplish something terrible. The critics shouldn't have been surprised: Miyazaki had expressed the same sort of view in his rousing Porco Rosso. Admittedly, those who disliked The Wind Rises might not have objected quite as much if the film had been a rousing fantasy about a man with the face of a pig.
Porco Rosso (which translates as “Crimson Pig”) doesn't tell us much about its central character's mysterious history. We know that he used to be an ordinary human named Marco, that he was a celebrated member of Italy's air force in World War I, that he was eventually placed under a curse which gave him the face of a pig and that he now goes by Porco. Why a pig? “All middle-aged men are pigs,” he mutters. While most other animated movies would eagerly explain the true nature of the curse (and undoubtedly provide a solution for breaking it), Miyazaki is content to allow his film's central man... er pig... er, man/pig... of mystery to remain mysterious. In doing so, he delivers one of his richest and most compelling characters.
Though Porco (Michael Keaton, Birdman) was once regarded as a hero, these days he has no interest in selflessness. He's a bounty hunter, plain and simple, and he'll only pledge his loyalty to the people willing to pay him. When his plane is shot down by an arrogant American fighter pilot (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride), Porco is unable to continue seeking work. He determines to spend the entirety of his savings on repairing his signature red plane, but balks when he discovers that the only mechanic available to tackle the job is Fio, a 17-year-old girl. “It is because I'm a woman or because I'm too young?” Fio demands. “Actually, it's both, sweetheart,” Porco sneers. Still, Porco's desire to get his plane back quickly overcomes his chauvinism, and eventually the charismatic young mechanic talks her way into joining Porco on his adventures.
Porco Rosso was initially imagined as an in-flight short film for Japan Airlines, but grew into a full-length feature over the course of its creation. The film's production history almost certainly explains its relatively plotless, episodic quality, as the movie cheerfully lurches from one big setpiece to the next without really taking much time to form a fully-crafted narrative. As such, the movie is a little bit less than the sum of its parts: a ton of great moments which form a merely good story. It's never less than delightful to behold, however, and Miyazaki's direction has rarely been so unabashedly joyful. The flight sequences (and there are many) are drawn with thrilling fluidity. Despite the fact that the movie features quite a few plane crashes, the film was still shown on Japan Airlines flights. The company's decision is certainly understandable: the film so effectively captures the unparalleled thrill of flying that the crashes hardly seem to matter.
The film has plenty of silliness and high adventure, but also contains a melancholy streak which makes certain scenes feel like something ripped straight out of Casablanca. The subtle romance between Porco and his old flame Gina (Susan Egan, Hercules) produces some genuinely lovely moments, and there's a climactic moment of spiritually-charged fantasy which draws a direct line between this film and the more fantastical moments of The Wind Rises. Miyazaki generously treats pirates, corporate professionals, bounty hunters and military men as equals: they all fly, and in his mind, that grants them all at least a measure of nobility.
Disney has traditionally done a fine job with their English-language dubs of Studio Ghibli films, but Porco Rosso is more hit-and-miss than most. Keaton is terrific in the central role, grunting and grumbling his way through the part in memorable fashion. However, many of the supporting characters feel a little too cartoonish in contrast, particularly given the semi-serious tone of certain moments. The original Japanese track is solid, but Miyazaki himself actually prefers the French language track (mostly due to Jean Reno's work as Porco).
Porco Rosso may be a tad slighter and less focused than Miyazaki's best work (it was released just before the director delivered the astonishing one-two punch of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), but it's a film I'm fond of revisiting. The animation is gorgeous, the humor is winning and the quieter moments prove surprisingly soulful. Porco's appearance is certainly unusual, but the film always takes him seriously: his flirty, playful, fun-loving demeanor masks a weary soul filled with regret. He's a beautiful, stubborn fool who feels more like Bogart than Babe.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 1992