Porco Rosso

Year: 1992
Production Co: Japan Airlines/Studio Ghibli
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Michael Keaton, Susan Egan, Kimberley Williams-Paisley

Elements of film noir from films like Casablanca, the adventurism of movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and more combine with animation it seems only Studio Ghibli can do, and it all wraps up characters that are completely out of left field to make the whole thing as narratively magical as it is visually so.

It's the 1930s in the Mediterranean Sea, and a former World War I flying ace, Porco (Michael Keaton – I watched the English language version) has been transformed into a humanoid pig because of a curse. He now makes his living as an airborne mercenary, running contraband or rescue operations for the highest bidder.

As fascism builds in the political climate around him, Porco only wants to enjoy his little beach on a hidden island, the radio playing and a scotch beside him, occasionally making his way to an island-set resort for local fliers that's owned and run by old flame Gina (Susan Egan).

After the opening action sequence in which Porco rescues a gaggle of excited schoolgirls from the fearsome pirates who extort and rob sailors and pilots throughout the region they're gunning for his head, hiring an ambitious blowhard American fighter pilot to find and do away with him.

With his plane grounded and damaged after the battle, Porco has to go to his old friend and go-to mechanic Piccolo for repairs at his shop in Turin, where there's still a warrant for his arrest after deserting in the war.

But all Piccolo's sons who worked with him are gone, only his female relatives left. Among the aunts and grandmothers who now muck in and do the work with gusto, it's Piccolo's irrepressible granddaughter Flo (Kimberley Williams-Paisley) who wants not only to redesign and rebuild Porco's fighter but go with him on his mission to depose the pirates once and for all.

But when Porco and Flo return home to his idyllic island to rest, the pirates are waiting to ambush them. Flo talks them out of killing him and destroying his plane and it's the American blowhard, now working with them, who seals everyone's potential fate. Taking an interest in Flo, he proposes that he and Porco fly a race – if he wins, he gets Flo's hand in marriage and if not, he takes on Porco's debts to Piccolo.

The lush visuals director Hayao Miyazaki is known for are as beautiful and evocative as ever, but this is was the first time the story was so sweeping and romantic as well, seeming to hark back to older cinema styles and genres rather than just invent eye popping worlds – although that might just be blinkers on my part, because I know a lot of the elements of other Ghibli films are borrowed from regional (particularly Japanese) culture.

But among the whole canon, this one seems most directly to reference old Hollywood itself. Aside from that, the motifs Miyazaki loves and returns to again and again like aviation, Italy, machinery and engineering and nature – particularly water – are as comfortable as old shoes. And whether it's the wide-open ocean or a dark garage opening out onto a city canal, it depicts the textures, and colours of locations and geography so well you can almost smell the sea salt, engine oil and cordite. It's more entertaining and imaginative than plenty of live action films around.

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