Round 3: Romantic Outings

The Pebble and the Penguin vs. Porco Rosso


Marco the Pig and Martin the Penguin

                This is skipping ahead in both directors careers a bit, but it’s time to address some different points. (Yes, I’m still covering all 10 theatrical releases from both.) Here we see both men taking their biggest stab at a movie with a love story driving the plot. Bluth’s idea seemed to return to his roots a bit, creating a story around a group of talking animals with a bigger scope and arguably higher stakes. Miyazaki, meanwhile, was heading in a different direction here, exploring different characters and themes than before and even perhaps drawing from himself in creating one of his characters. Their respective results make this one of the easier decisions.

The Pebble and the Penguin:  This the last movie released on the failing streak Don Bluth was on in the early 90s, and though the idea sounds closer to the flicks he made his name on, the fact that the distributors insisted on hacking-up and re-recording much of it probably didn’t help. Until recently, it might have been a contender for his worst movie, having lost as much money as most any of them with hardly a positive review in sight. But internet reviews seem to have improved its reputation slightly, and now it’s seen more as “mediocre”. The story is a standard, agreeable idea, and there’s nothing especially noteworthy to beat down. I have to say though, his other more infamous movies at least left me with something. There are many small problems to point out in The Pebble and the Penguin, but what they really amount to is a movie that, despite flashes of potential, just comes out empty.

The movie’s opening seemed as grand to me as anything I’ve seen from Bluth. We drift through richly-drawn portraits of the South Pole, and the narrator describes the penguin’s mating ritual with a light, quiet sincerity. There’s a certain dignity to these moments, both somber and majestic, and it’s a quality that real nostalgia is made of. It even makes the limp lyrics of the opening song work. Then we dive into a random purple dot, and the movie takes a dive with us, becoming very cartoonish very fast.

The rest of it, with its penguins in hats and ascots and its credits superimposed like a holiday special, is almost cheesy. From here on, the movie never seems to know just what tone to go for or how to make us care. And it unwisely spends much of its time meandering with the same cheesy, almost vaudeville-style approach.

Hubie the penguin is our clumsy, stuttering hero hoping to win the prized Marina. At first I thought he seemed the ideal character for Dom Deluise and wondered why Martin Short of all people was picked, but after listening, I can see why Short was a good choice. Of course a comical wimp isn’t beyond him, but there are also a couple of scenes where we’re supposed to take Hubie seriously, in which Short really does sound like he means it. It’s something I can’t quite picture Deluise pulling off the same way. But what could have been a cute little pairing doesn’t amount to much, as Marina spends most of the movie sitting around reciting why the lovable chump is a better choice than Drake, the scheming gorilla-penguin who doesn’t even have the decency to wait until she leaves before doing the evil laugh. Marina gets exactly one scene to herself, just enough to remind us of what could have been.

The best thing in the movie is easily Jim Belushi’s “Rocko”, the macho penguin who reluctantly becomes Hubie’s buddy, after helping him escape the ship heading for a zoo. Not only is he the most amusing character, but he mocks the slow, sappier bits in the movie better than I ever could. As for Tim Curry… I wish he’d been given more to work with than a poor man’s Gaston. Drake’s “Don’t Make Me Laugh” is the worst of many sub-par songs. Before, I remembered it being the deadpan march “Welcome to the Good Ship Misery”, but actually, that one is sorta funny. (Every day begins with misery. Breakfast in a rusty cup. Then we all get good and miserable. And then we all, throw up!”

When a movie falls short, it’s easier to mock it if it sticks its neck out, if it shows sincerity for something and isn’t totally convincing. Some of Bluth’s lesser movies are polarizing for what they try to accomplish and nowadays are lambasted for it. Not so for The Pebble and the Penguin, which really doesn’t do anything “wrong” like that (save for the inexplicable payoff to Rocko’s dream goal), and even does a couple things right. No harm, no foul. It’s just devoid of anything to recommend it for at all.

Final score: 4.5/10

Porco Rosso: Here is Miyazaki exploring more of his personal interests in a story about an ex-World War I flying ace turned freelance pilot. It doesn’t aim to be his most groundbreaking movie, but I believe the popular notion is that he put a lot of himself into Porco. It is the type of light-hearted adventures we’d all probably love to write around our own proxy, this one a lovable rebel who looks out for number one and shows up anyone who bothers him. Porco is an easy guy to tag along with, even through the story of his political problems. In fact, the only real touch of Miyazaki fantasy here is that Porco (whose name is actually “Marco Paggot”, to the surprise of nobody around him, has been changed into an anthropomorphic pig, which bothers him so little that he actually has a sarcastic sense of humor about it.

The Pebble and the Penguin should have taken notes from this one. When Porco Rosso is cartoonish, it’s with a real sense of glee, and it’s woven into the adventure well, giving Porco harmless oaf seaplane pirates and a narcissist showoff to battle. It’s a deliberately sillier movie than most of Miyazaki’s features, and sometimes it even feels more inconsequential. But some poignant touches and sharp character dynamics put it right up there with some of his biggest trademarks.

To Porco, his intimate longtime friendship with local hotel owner Gina is nothing more than that. (In fact, the brief story of her past relationships is such a tragic surprise that it’s easy to see why he would assume so.) Actually, the only thing standing in the way of them as a couple is Porco himself, with the same self-imposed detachment from real relationships it seems is keeping him a pig. He’s pushed to take the first step when extensive repairs to his plane (in the country where he’s stilla wanted man) tie his fate together with the friendly young engineer Fio, who soon grows to like him and slips around all his attempts to distance himself. His story to her about his greatest adventure as a pilot is one of Miyazaki’s beautiful moments, the first one that comes to mind whenever I think of this movie.

Porco Rosso is a must see for any Miyazaki fan, and a good example of how his movies do not, in fact, become more of the same. And if the payoff seems to lack finality, it’s only one more way Miyazaki has captured an aspect of life. Nobody really wants to say that their adventure is over, least of all these characters. But when they come to see they’re not as at odds with each other as they think, they’ve unwittingly achieved all they needed to.

Final score: 8.5/10

Winner: At its best, The Pebble and The Penguin hints at potentially more interesting ideas, while Porco Rosso takes advantage of everything on screen. Curtis, the rival pilot, is more fun than Drake just by being given more to do, and while Gina does as much sitting and waiting as Marina, we’re actually made to care about her and effectively at that. Porco, meanwhile, is more charming than Hubie and as much fun as Rocko. Needless to say, his showdown with Curtis is far more exciting than watching Hubie step back to avoid Drake Hulk-smashing the ground before delivering a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick a few times. Miyazaki takes this one with ease.


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