Porco Rosso (1992)

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I’ve been on something of a Studio Ghibli tilt these last couple of weeks, borrowing a few DVDs from the local library. I’ve always enjoyed the stories and animation style coming out of the Japanese studio, so I figured I’d take a look at some films that I had previously missed.

What we get in Porco Rosso is an World War I hero turned freelance bounty hunter and, through some sort of evil spell that is never fully explored, he has the appearance of a pig. Go figure. He zips around the Adriatic sea, snatching “air pirates” to collect their bounties. While there is a certain sense of whimsy to the whole tale — he does look like a humanoid pig, after all — this movie doesn’t have the same kind of child-like charm that we find in other Ghibli films like Ponyo and Totoro. Instead, we get a quiet tough guy who has to work with a young girl to repair and build his plane, in anticipation of a dogfight he’ll have with a hot shot American pilot.

The pacing can feel uneven, we have to suspend our disbelief for scenes depicting the honor among pirates, and we never really learn why and how a man named Marco Pagot turned into the “Red Pig,” but Porco Rosso has a “strong, silent type” of charm about it, just like its title character. It’s quite different than most other Ghibli movies, as it really doesn’t center around the adventures of children.

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

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Speaking of films that are unlike the rest of the Studio Ghibli library (that I have seen thus far), Whisper of the Heart doesn’t contain any talking animals, strange spirits or flying buildings. Instead, it is a deceptively simple tale told in a simple and elegant way.

We have a young girl who is studying for her high school entrance exams, but she finds that she is lacking a sense of inspiration or direction. By following a chubby cat riding the train one day (strange, I know), she comes to meet a boy who is the same age as her. After they get past some initial animosity, they really hit it off and she learns that he wants to learn from master violin makers in Italy. Meanwhile, she still doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. This lights a fire in her belly and she decides she wants to pursue fiction writing. She focuses all of her time, attention and energy toward this task, casting schoolwork aside.

No, there’s no real sense of magic here. We are whisked away to some amazing land filled with wonderful possibilities and unique characters. Instead, Whisper of the Heart is a coming-of-age story for a young girl who tries to find her place in this world. It’s sweet, but it may be too straightforward for some.

The Cat Returns (2002)

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In many ways, The Cat Returns is a direct spinoff from Whisper of the Heart. In Whisper, the young girl discovers a unique cat statue in an antique shop. He’s called the Baron and he becomes a part of the story that she writes. In The Cat Returns, the Baron comes to life… it’s almost as if The Cat Returns is the story that the young girl wrote.

Here, we get a different school-aged girl and she saves a cat from getting run over by a car. As it turns out, there is a secret society of talking cats who walk around on their hind legs. And the cat she saved happens to be their prince. She’s met with many gifts and even more complications along the way as she is transported to this strange world, quickly learning that everything isn’t quite as it seems.

As far as what we typically expect from a Studio Ghibli movie, The Cat Returns follows the formula closest out of the three films reviewed today. It’s cute and it’s magical, even if the animation style has an entirely different feel to it. You don’t need to watch Whisper of the Heart first, but it does enrich the experience of watching The Cat Returns.