In one of those glib turns of phrase that’s accepted as true even though it isn’t, the most imaginative and talented Japanese animator of his generation, Hayao Miyazaki, has become to be known in the U.S. as “the Disney of Japan.” This may appear to be reinforced by the Mouse House’s release of the remaining two major Miyazaki features previously unseen Stateside — his second pic, “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (1984) and his least-appreciated yet most personal film, “Porco Rosso” (1992). With the director’s love of young characters’ fantastic adventures, and with his fabulously successful Studio Ghibli’s financial and co-production partnership with the Disney studio, how could Hayao not be directly compared to Walt?
Saying it’s so doesn’t make it so, and nothing better confirms this than these releases and the Ghibli-produced “The Cat Returns,” a 2002 pic based on an idea by Miyazaki but directed by Hiroyuki Morita; it’s the only one in the group that can reasonably be compared to typical Disney animation.
With an English-lingo cast led by Disney favorite Anne Hathaway as a high schooler whose rescue of a cat leads her to an alternate, feline-ruled universe, “Cat” is by far the least of this trio and the one most skewed to young girl auds — not the kind of crossover mob scene that’s given the Miyazaki name worldwide blockbuster appeal.
Instead, Miyazaki fans and toon heads should turn their attention to “Porco Rosso” and “Nausicaa,” and wonder, while watching them, why these aren’t receiving theatrical releases before their vid entries. This is especially true of the magnificently entertaining “Porco,” whose titular character is an ace WWI pilot-turned-bounty hunter with a human body and porcine face, tooling around the Adriatic on the lookout for air pirates.
If the movie may feel at times too large and grand to fit on the home monitor, that’s because “Porco Rosso” is a fabulously rich movie-movie (primarily for adults and older kids) designed to be seen on the bigscreen. While Disney’s to be praised for finally bringing the film out of mothballs (though French DVD viewers have been able to see it since 1999), it’s also to be seriously chided for punting on securing a proper theatrical rollout.
Not only does this rank among Miyazaki’s finest achievements, it reflects his personal love of aviation (Porco, like young heroine Nausicaa, is at his best when airborne), his political concerns (fascist Italy stands in here for fascist Japan of the same 1930s period) and his fullest expression to date of a non-fantasy world resembling our own — albeit deliciously influenced by Bogart and Howard Hawks movies. As a bonus, the English production (far preferable to the original Japanese track) features Michael Keaton voicing Porco in one of the thesp’s funniest and most memorable perfs.
“Nausicaa,” by contrast, travels in more familiar territory. A predecessor to the better “Princess Mononoke” as a fable about man’s capacity for destroying the planet, adventure features a lass with a keen love for animals who helps save her bucolic home from neighboring warriors and a massive army of giant caterpillar-like insects. Miyazaki’s first hit fascinates as a glimpse into the master’s then-developing style, even when the final-act storytelling gets woozy. Vocal thesping, with Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Cary Elwes and Uma Thurman, is solid.
Each is available in two-disc sets wisely sold separately for $29.98. Extras on each are mainly complete storyboards (accompanied by English soundtrack). A fitfully made 27-minute docu on the genesis of Studio Ghibli accompanies “Nausicaa.”