The rare Studio Ghibli film I’d never even heard of until recently, Porco Rosso (“Crimson Pig” according to the opening text) is a fun, exciting tale of a World War I fighter pilot, now a bounty hunter, who happens to be a pig in every sense of the word but must learn to be devoted to someone other than himself.
Porco, whose face has long since been turned into that of a swine, is a lazy, self-interested womanizer who will still save the day if the price is right: the film opens with him rescuing a bunch of schoolgirls who have been taken as hostages by pirates. Porco shoots down their aircraft, in a way that doesn’t endanger the crew or any of the girls, and with the pirates unharmed and yet powerless, the children swim their way to safety.
The pirates possess an odd sense of ‘honor’ as well, in that their reason for kidnapping so many girls is so none will be separated from their friends, and it is that side-by-side placing of honor and wrongdoing that plays a rather interesting but disturbing role later in the movie, even as it lends additional personality to a number of characters and keeps them from feeling too one-dimensional.
The next scene, this one in a bar, introduces a longtime friend of Rosso’s, Gina, who herself has a lovely speaking voice as well as appearance. She quickly establishes herself as kindhearted enough to get along with Porco yet confident enough to expect more of his behavior, and at this point some early information is given about her past, as well as the curse that made Rosso (whom Gina addresses by his human name) into a pig in the first place. The understated, more realistic character designs in the bar almost look inconsistent against the pirates’ and Porco’s goofier features, but in themselves they’re still very well done.
The pirate planes’ paint jobs look as silly as the pirates themselves do, but they don’t hesitate to do what pirates do best: They attack a cruise liner, shoot down its onboard fighter security, and loot the ship. Porco, meanwhile, is interested in his own priorities, which include taking his plane for repairs after it gets shot down by an American pilot hired by the pirates.
(Porco’s character development comes a bit late in the film, and as such, he isn’t nearly as immediately likeable as the lead from Kiki’s Delivery Service, a movie I wholeheartedly recommend. Still, though, he does have some pretty excellent, funny dialogue. I will say that it’s a wee bit suggestive for a children’s film, even if it fits remarkably well with the setting. Amusingly, though, “Porco” is referred to as such by nearly everyone in the film, suggesting that they’ve known him as such for quite a while–and, more tellingly, that they find nothing odd about a person-turned-swine walking around. “When pigs fly,” indeed.)
Rosso repeatedly reminds others of the fact that he is a pig, which suggests a great deal of unease, but it is at this point that he meets Piccolo, an elderly plane repairman, and Fio, a highly skilled and talented engineer who happens to be both young and a woman, two characteristics that aggravate our sexist protagonist to no end. Porco’s “piggish” personality traits tend to get run into the ground a bit, particularly in his refusal to open up to Gina and to trust Fio, whose own personality–compassionate but determined–tends to be quite similar. Fortunately the film remains lively enough that the mild slowness of the plot doesn’t get in the way of the level of activity maintained throughout.
As irony would have it, circumstances force Piccolo to turn to his many female relatives to form a repair crew, and while Porco is as uncomfortable with this as one might imagine (his sexism toward women isn’t really explained much, as far as I can recall), the ladies young and old do an excellent job with the work. So what on earth made Porco so selfish, and how did he get turned into a pig in the first place?
The rest of the film reminds me pretty heavily of a certain well-known Disney movie, and while the overall plot remains somewhat thin, the characterization suggests enough depth to fill several movies: Fio and Gina are extremely interesting people in their own right, and Porco eventually does develop ‘depth’ in a heartwarming way that makes sense and doesn’t really feel forced. While some of the later scenes in the movie are slightly more intense than the lighthearted, “friendly” action scenes at the beginning of the film, the movie’s shift in tone is smooth and fairly difficult to notice, neither sharp nor sudden.
Even the ending confrontation, itself important for the plot and the characters, is played more for fun than for drama, and so while young children might become slightly bored about a third of the way into the film, there are still plenty of exciting events to come that will hold their attention later on. (I will say that there’s a sort of ‘boxing match’ late in the movie that tends to straddle the line between being humorous and being rather gross, though, given that the characters involved end up with black eyes and swollen faces.)
On perhaps a sadder yet oddly serene note, one subplot involves the deaths of several characters, and while these aren’t shown in visual detail, the writing itself takes on a rather somber tone even as the animation reaches some of its most beautiful moments in the film.
The setting and the characters are oftentimes more interesting than what happens to them, which is meant as a compliment–the depiction of Italy in the movie doesn’t shy away from mentions of fascism and secret police, even as neither is really explored in depth. One troublesome aspect of the characterization, however, is that while the pirates and several others have “honor,” these people and the film have no problem with lying to and deceiving people, even if those people are sometimes members of the secret police. While the element of honor adds a neat layer of complexity to some already interesting characters, it doesn’t seem to fit very well in the context it’s given.
For the most part, however, Porco Rosso is a wonderful if odd Studio Ghibli film that might not quite maintain the consistent level of excellence seen in works such as Kiki’s Delivery Service but is still very much an enjoyable film on its own merits. Porco is no role model, but he’s a hilariously entertaining character with memorable friendships that really are the highlights of the film. The film’s excellent art, animation, and music are to be expected, given its studio, and they all add their own brand of life to a somewhat predictable but nonetheless spirited and enjoyable movie.