The films of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio created by Hayao Miyazaki, continue their Blu-ray rollout in the U.S. with three more debuts. Only one of this set, however, is directed by the animation legend himself. All three discs feature both English language and original Japanese soundtracks (with optional English subtitles), the complete film in storyboard form set to the soundtrack, and Japanese trailer, plus a bonus DVD copy of the film.
Porco Rosso (Disney, Blu-ray) is Miyazaki’s fantasy of a loner flying ace, a World War I hero who lives in isolation on an island in the Adriatic Sea and patrols the skies on a personal mission to keep them safe from high-flying sky pirates in an imaginary post-World War I Italy. There’s something else about this aerial knight: he has the face of pig, the result of a magical spell that is referenced but never fully explained. It simply is, and it marks this chivalrous romantic as a tortured hero cursed to be alone (even though there are two women in love him). The title is Italian for “red pig,” perhaps Miyazaki’s fanciful answer to the Red Baron.
The 1992 feature was a huge hit in Japan and a personal project for Miyazaki, whose love of aviation and Italy can also be seen in his more serious final feature The Wind Rises. He fills the film with beautifully-executed aerial dogfights set against the blue Mediterranean skies and seas and constructs a sentimental vision of Italy between the wars as lovingly detailed as his European village in Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are flamboyantly caricatured figures and slapstick sequences to this lighthearted comic swashbuckler but also a wistful sense of loss for the honor and chivalry for the past. Michael Keaton voices Porco for the English language version and Cary Elwes is his nemesis, an American pilot hired by the sky pirates to shoot him down. Also features the voices of Susan Egan, Kimberly Williams, and David Ogden Stiers.
Includes a “Behind the Microphone” featurette with the English language voice cast and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki (in Japanese with simultaneous English audio translation).
Tales from Earthsea (Disney, Blu-ray), a 2006 production based on the “Earthsea” novels by Ursula Le Guin and a concept developed by Hayao Miyazaki, marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. Miyazaki Pere’s influence is apparent in the themes of nature in balance and the greed of mankind tipping the scales, and the character designs and types are also familiar, with dragons out of Asian culture dropped into a medieval European world of castles and towers. Yet Goro lacks his father’s storytelling richness and narrative sweep, and for all the gorgeous detail of the animation he fails to create much tension or energy.
Fans of Ursula Le Guin will have their own problems with the way the film boils down her mythology to a generic fantasy odyssey tale. But there is a visual grace unique to the Studio Ghibli brand, and the dark powers manifest themselves in a weirdness that bends the natural world in unnatural ways. The American voice cast includes Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay and Willem Dafoe.
Features the hour-long documentary “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack,” which is in Japanese with English subtitles, and the brief featurette “Behind the Studio: Origins Of The Earthsea.”
Pom Poko (Disney, Blu-ray), directed by Isao Takahata, is an environmental drama about a small community of magical shape-shifting raccoons trying to hold off a development encroaching on their habitat. This is right out of the traditional Studio Ghibli style, complete with lovingly detailed characters and environmental message. The scenes of the raccoons attempting to replicating human form and behavior is often hilarious, but the undercurrent of the comedy is serious, a plea to save the vanishing wilderness of Japan. The voice cast of the English language version includes Jonathan Taylor Thomas, J.K. Simmons, Olivia d’Abo, Clancy Brown, and Maurice LaMarche.