Home Entertainment Reviews: Porco Rosso & Tales From Earthsea

Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki -1992) Of the many animated visions that Hayao Miyazaki treated audiences to over the years, Porco Rosso falls into the “Minor Miyazaki” category. He made better movies before Porco Rosso and arguably his best films all came after. Thankfully, minor Miyazaki is better than the work of most directors who dabble in animation at their best. The movie might not hit the heights of Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, but few do. Instead, the film presents the master Japanese filmmaker in one of his most playful modes. It’s ultimately a goofy comedy about a literally pigheaded wiseass, but one that’s filled with astounding visual imagination, cynical satire, warmhearted morals, and a sequence of deeply moving transcendent beauty. You know, all the stuff that Miyazaki seemed to paint on the screen without even trying, only this time with brighter colors and more jokes. As part of Disney’s admirable commitment to release all of Studio Ghibli’s output onto Blu-ray, Porco Rosso is now officially available on our favorite spinning movie discs. So, go get it if you love Miyazaki, animation, or even just joy.

Oddly enough, the film was an adaptation of a three volume Italian watercolor album about a WWI pilot. It sounds like something that would never fit within Miyazaki’s oeuvre until it’s mentioned that said pilot was cursed to look like a pig and serve as a bounty hunter. Now we’re talking. So, obviously Porco Rosso is the pigman bountyhunter in question. He’s a surely gent whose aviation talent is matched only by his skill at dismissing people with a harsh one-liner. The film takes place between World Wars and opens with Porco taking out a collection of pirates. From there he stumbles into a village where he reunites with a former lover, kicks off a feud with a cocky American pilot (is there any other kind?), and befriends a young girl/genius mechanic. From there, it’s time for a blast of colorful set pieces, aviation ogling, and gentle female empowerment. You know, all the usual Miyazaki specialties. Only this time wrapped up in a collection of goofy jokes.

Porco Rosso is far from a laugh-a-second yuk-fest, but there’s so much charm to Miyazaki’s irreverent blast of comic book entertainment that you can’t help but chuckle (especially since Michael Keaton voiced the title role in the American translation, which is even better than it sounds). As should be expected from the great filmmaker, the initially black and white morality of the adventure gradually dilutes down to grays. Miyazaki doesn’t do evil, just people and even manages to bring his humanist touch even in a movie about a pig bounty hunter. The teen girl Fio offers another one of the director’s trademark strong heroines and even if she’s one of his least complex (and her semi-love story with Porco is more than a little creepy), the character’s presence offers a welcome flavor. This is a very breezy film that only touches on the director’s usual tricky themes on the way to a big set piece or joke. Yet, even in a film this playful and willfully adolescent, Miyazaki finds room for one genuinely transcendent sequence. At one point, Porco recalls a troubling memory about a massive dogfight that gives way to what can only be described as an “aviation heaven” sequence. The scene is as beautiful and evocative as anything in the director’s storied career and single handedly explains the filmmaker’s interest in the project. Well, beyond all of the bubblegum entertainment, of course.

As usual, Disney have outdone themselves on a technical standpoint with the Porco Rosso Blu-ray. Colors explode off the screen in radiant hues, while the action and flying scenes are rendered with such extraordinary care that they’ll reduce any animation fan to a drooling child in HD. Lossless audio mixes for both the English and Japanese versions of the film are included and both have been exquisitely restored for Blu-ray (personally, I prefer the English track on this one for Keaton’s performance and the chance to watch the gorgeous HD presentation without subtitles, but it’s nice to have both options). Special features are limited to those that accompanied the old DVD and there’s not much. First up is a brief 3-minute interview with producer Toshio Suzuki about his work on the film and ongoing relationship with Miyazaki that’s nice but obviously not very detailed. Next up comes a collection of interviews with all of the American voice over artists that’s worth a look though hardly delves into the most compelling aspect of Porco Rosso’s production. Finally, animation buffs get the usual storyboards for the entire film (always worth a peak) and a collection of Japanese trailers are included. So, it’s hardly an overwhelmingly stacked disc, but simply having access to Porco Rosso on Blu-ray is worth the price of admission. It’s been one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most underrated efforts since being released in 1992 and hopefully the new release will help bolster the numbers of the flick’s deserved cult audience. 

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Tales From Earthsea (Goro Miyazaki, 2006)

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Adapted from the popular fantasy series by Ursula K.Le Guin, Tales From Earthsea seemed like it might have the potential for crossover North American appeal for Studio Ghibli. Having slowly wormed their way into cult acceptance in North America by the film’s release in the mid-2000s, the studio clearly hoped this adaptation could help the crossover continue. The Ghibli’s beating heart and resident genius Hayao Miyazaki also assigned the project to his son Goro, who many hoped could keep the studio alive as his father enjoyed a long overdue retirement. Yep, it was going to be a big movie for Studio Ghibli. And then it wasn’t. Truth be told, Tales From Earthsea doesn’t quite come together and was a low point in the studio’s finest run of films. Yet that being said, the movie is easily one of Ghibli’s most astonishing technical achievements. As pure eye candy, it has to be seen-to-be-believed. So, obviously it’s well suited to Blu-ray via Disney’s ongoing Ghibli initiative. The film’s failings might not be improved by the jump to high definition, but if you want to have your eyes blown out this disc will do the trick. 

As is so often the way in Studio Ghibli joints, our story begins with an imbalance in nature. This causes the lands to be poisoned and the minds of people to become corrupt beyond their will (Whew! Bad times). Our hero, the young Prince Arren, inexplicably kills his kingly father and his forced to flee the land (along with king daddy’s super sword, of course). Arren doesn’t know how that possibly could have happened or why, but the he finds help through a kindly sorcerer and sullen strong willed girl. Then an evil wizard (voiced by a whispering Willem Dafoe in the English version to maximize the creepiness) appears and puts Arren at the center of the path between good and evil. To be honest, it’s a bit tough to follow all of the fantasy mumbojumbo in play. Something was lost in translation from Ursula K. Le Guin’s beloved novel and it doesn’t quite play in this condensed version. Thankfully, the flick is far from a disaster. As long as you don’t mind a slow pace and a lack of clarity, there’s plenty to enjoy. Not to mention the fact that there are a number of scenes between a villain voiced by Dafoe and a henchman voiced by Cheech Marin and that’s a once-in-a-life-time casting coup to cherish. 

So, while Tales From Earthsea might be a little slow, confused, and convoluted by Studio Ghibli standards, it’s only because those standards are so incredibly high. The usual themes of environmental balance, battling the dark side, chasing inner peace all appear to please the Ghibli obsessives. It fits in with the other films, even if it tops very few of them. Whenever the narrative lurches into high gear Goro Miyazaki does his father proud through sheer visual imagination and stunning spectacle. Whenever dragons rage and evil shape-shifting wizards do battle Tales From Eathsea explodes to life. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films that the studio ever crafted on a purely technical level. The companies resources were never larger and every inch of manpower was used to ensure the movie offered peerless spectacle. In a weird way, this is Ghibli’s Sleeping Beauty. In both instances, the project represented an epic technical showcase the likes of which the respective studio never attempted twice even though the script was far from their best work. Plus, both projects feature a show-stopping climatic dragon transformation. So, the similarities are endless (or at least there are similarities, plural. That’s something). 

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Given the downright stunning animation featured in Tales From Earthsea, it should come as no surprise that this is easily one of the most beautiful Ghibli Blu-ray releases to come from Disney. All of the film’s action sequences and carefully designed worlds appear here in vivid clarity. It’s a feast for the eyes as it was always designed to be and given that the visuals are easily the film’s greatest strength that pays off in a big way on this disc. Japanese and English lossless soundtracks are included and both boast the depth and boom-boom of a massive blockbusters. In terms of special features, we get the usual full storyboards and Japanese trailers. A pair of lopsided featurettes round out the disc, one four-minute discussion of the film’s inception that barely scratches the surface, and one massive hour long documentary about the score and soundtrack (I know, weird right? It seems to be the second part of a two part documentary about the entire production from the Japanese DVD and I’m clueless as to why this half made it to the Blu-ray without the first half). So, this isn’t exactly the most compelling Studio Ghibli movie to come out of the Disney vaults. However, it is easily one of the best in terms of eye candy. That obviously pays off in HD, so for anyone collecting the Ghibli Disney Blu-rays Tales From Earthsea  demands to be part of your collection as a tech demo alone. Now the countdown till the Spirited Away Blu-ray may continue. 



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