Tales From Studio Ghibli:

Blu-ray Reviews: February 2015

Porco Rosso

Pom Poko

Tales from Earthsea

    Studio Ghibli is one of the most well known animation studios in the world.  Over the last 30 years they have created some of the finest animated classics of the late 20th century.  Last year it was announced the studio would cease as a production environment, but continue to issue the copyrights for Studio Ghibli characters.   Disney have since the early 2000's (since around Spirited Away) been issuing the Ghibli catalog on DVD with the exception of a few titles. Over the last 3 years they have been bringing the studio's iconic output to Blu-ray with spectacular results.  During that time frame we have primarily gotten the films of Hayao Miyazaki with the exception of the later Ghibli entry The Secret World of Arietty, and the mid-90's film Whisper of the Heart.  The 3 most recent Ghibli releases issued from Disney on Blu include 2 non-Hayao Miyazaki films with 1994 environmental fable Pom Poko, directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata.  We also get the 2006 Ursula K. LeGuin adaptation, Tales from Earthsea directed by Goro Miyazaki. The third film is Miyazaki's original ode to flight Porco Rosso.


    Porco Rosso is the 1992 film from Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.  It was originally meant to be an adaptation of his manga series "The Age of the Flying Boat," and also to be an in-flight movie for an airline in Japan.  The latter accounts for Porco's shorter running time which may be one of the shortest films in Miyazaki's feature film oeuvre. Porco Rosso is an anomaly in the filmography of Hayao Miyazaki, aside from being a rather short film, it isn't as thematically deep as some of his earlier and later films, and also has a clearly marked historical setting taking place in the region of Italy around the Adriatic Sea sometime between the end of the first World War,  and the beginning of World War II. The former puts the film more in line  with Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli effort Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro which like Porco is a magnificent action/adventure film.


     Porco Rosso tells the tale of Marco Pagot a pilot who before the film begins was turned into a pig, and now goes under the name Porco. He was a former pilot in World War I, but now works as a bounty hunter.  After a battle with air pirates that was fought to protect a group of passengers on a ferry, Porco retires for some rests at a hotel run by a woman he loves Gina.  This attracts the attention of another pilot Curtis, who also has feelings for her.  When Porco next takes flight, Curtis flies in pursuit, and shoots him down, and convinces Gina of his death.  However, Porco is very much alive, and manages to get his plane to the shop of an old friend whose son's have left, but whose Granddaughter, Flo, will happily use her skills to do the repairs. After spending a month getting the repairs done, Porco takes to the skies with Flo.  He must take on the pirates and also Curtis in one final duel.


    Disney have presented Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso in a splendid 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer.  In keeping with their other Ghibli Blu-ray transfers Porco Rosso looks perfect on Blu-ray with gorgeous color reproduction, and excellent line detail.  The clarity of the image presented is truly stunning, and there does not appear to be any DNR present on the transfer. The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA tracks in English, Japanese, and French.  Normally, I try and stick to the native language of the film, but since I watch these with my kids I went with the English track which is another excellent dub track from Disney/Ghibli. The dialogue, effects, and score sound fantastic, and I did not detect any issues with the audio. Extras include a Behind the Microphone featurette which interviews members of the dub cast, following that we have an interview with the films producer, the theatrical trailer, and the complete film in storyboard form.  Porco Rosso the film and Blu-ray come HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


    This brings us to Isao Takahata's 1994 film Pom Poko. Studio Ghibli is primarily known as the home to master animator Hayao Miyazaki, and very few other animators have had their work showcased through the studio.  However, the studio was co-founded by Isao Takahata who directed a number of films through the Studio Ghibli banner up through the late 1990's including the critically acclaimed Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, and the more satiric My Neighbors the Yamadas.  Pom Poko takes the environmental and mythological concerns that Ghibli would become known for and cast them in a darker direction akin to the later Howl's Moving Castle a decade before that film's creation.


    The film begins in the early 1960's. The Tama Hill's region outside of Tokyo is being developed to allow for more affordable housing for the humans of the region.  This, however, causes issues for the animals who live in the area most specifically the tanuki (Japanese Raccoon dogs).  They immediately begin to put into action a five year plan to save their home. This includes shape shifting into human form to commit what could almost be considered terrorist actions in order to shock and scare away people from their land.


     Pom Poko, I will be forthright in admitting is not my favorite film in the Ghibli filmography.  It is a film that attempts to do the very difficult balancing act of dealing with very heavy and dark themes and situations, but doing so in the context of what could be considered more light-hearted children's fare. While some parents might find the film from the outside a film for younger children, the film is definitely for older children, and adults with some of the more mature content especially in the film's second half where the tanuki become more desperate to protect their land, and lives are lost on both sides of the conflict.  I mentioned earlier Howl's Moving Castle which similarly tried to strike a balance between children’s fantasy and darker more mature themes, and while some have found that film to not be successful either, I felt that Miyazaki's later film was better at bridging the darker more difficult material with the earlier more fantastic than the earlier Pom Poko. The film also tends to overstay it's welcome at a nearly 2 hours running time.  That being said the earlier portions of the movie are quite enjoyable, and being Studio Ghibli the animation is of course fantastic.


    The Blu-ray like Pom Poko  is given a 1:85:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer that preserves the original aspect ratio of the film. The Blu-ray has excellent color reproduction, line detail, and very deep black.  The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 tracks in Japanese, English, and French.  The dialogue, score, and effects come through nicely, and I did not detect issues with the sound. The extras include storyboards and trailers. This one is Recommended for Ghibli completist, but not really for anyone else.


     2006's Tales from Earthsea proved to be the surprise film of the bunch.  The film has not seen a stateside release until this very Blu-ray, and the film has had a mixed reception from fans.  Tales from Earthsea was directed by the son of Hayao Miyazaki, Goro Miyazaki, and acted as the younger Miyazaki's debut feature. It was alleged that during the production of the film that the elder Miyazaki did not speak to his son, as he felt that Goro was unprepared to undertake this work on his own. When the film came out initially it was said that author Ursula LeGuin was a fan of the adaptation, but then backtracked after sometime after the film's release after she had time to absorb what Ghibli had done to her characters and world.  I personally made an attempt to watch the film about 3 years ago when it was streaming on Netflix, but the transfer was blocky and horrendous, and I felt even a lesser Ghibli film did not deserve to have it's debut presentation in such conditions.


    Tales from Earthsea follows the Archmage Sparrowhawk as he goes on a quest through the land of Earthsea. Early on in his quest he saves the life of a young man named Arren.  It turns  out that Arren is a cursed young man, who has an evil creature following him. The pair end up meeting with another powerful Wizard Tenar and her companion.  The group must stop the Lord Cobb, before he can kill Arren and Sparrowhawk in an attempt to gain immortality.


    OK, so the plot for Tales from Earthsea is sort of difficult to describe.  The adaptation is not of one of LeGuin's novels, but 4 of them,  and the title taken from a short story collection.  The plot doesn't entirely gel, but for these issues I really found myself drawn into the world crafted in this film.  It might have helped that I was not versed in LeGuin's novels prior to viewing the film, had I been I might have gone crazy from all the changed details,  but the film as presented was a gorgeously rendered, slightly mature animated fantasy tale.


     As with the other 2 films in this Ghibli release slate Tales from Earthsea is presented in a 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The film has a more muted color scheme than the prior 2, but color reproduction is quite nice, as is line detail, and black levels. The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 in English, Japanese, and French tracks.  The sound comes through nicely with no issues. The extras on the Blu-ray include the films storyboards, an hour long piece on the creation of the score, an electronic press kit, and  the film's trailers and TV spots. The film is RECOMMENDED.


    The latest batch of Ghibli Blu-ray's is a mixed batch with one Miyazaki masterpiece, and 2 films that range from very good to very interesting. The Blu-ray's look and sound stunning, and the extras are the typical Ghibli set.  For fans of the now defunct studio however, these are a must.