Much has been made over the Disney-produced dubs for Ghibli's works, but there are other existing English tracks for Ghibli films which don't get much recognition and/or are often given the shaft. One such dub is Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata's heartbreaking masterpiece about two children in post-World War II. The company who released the dub (produced by Skypilot Entertainment) is the now defunct Central Park Media, whose track record for dubs had been mixed. Although I have a soft spot for several of their dubs (Record of Lodoss War OVA, Slayers, The World of Narue, Now and Then Here and There, Night on Galactic Railroad, and Animation Runner Kuromi, to name a few), the company has also released a lot of others which (according to some) were pretty much sub-par.
If you're expecting Central Park Media's dub of Grave of the Fireflies to rival any of the better Ghibli dubs or even Carl Macek's earlier dubs of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, you'll probably be disappointed, for, while it is a competent enough production, it does not reach the high standards of its peers. It also unfortunately is a minor misfire for Central Park Media.
As with most CPM dubs, the ADR script adheres closely to the literal subtitle script; while that may be ideal for purists, this also results in some lines that come across as stilted and stale-sounding. I was more forgiving with the abovementioned dubs since the performances in most of them were good enough to overcome the sometimes awkward dialogue. The problem is that this is a Ghibli movie, where the standards for ADR scripting are much higher, and unfortunately the literal sounding script is a bit of a detriment to the overall production.
The cast of Grave of the Fireflies is a very small one, so in evaluating the voices, I shall be focusing on the three principal characters--the ones who have the most lines.
SEITA (J. Robert Spencer): Probably the best voice in the entire dub, and arguably the best performance. Spencer has the sort of teenage boy tone that is more than appropriate for Seita, and for the most part he handles himself fairly well. His chemistry with the younger sister who co-stars with him is largely attributed to the believability he provides the character, whether he is speaking quietly to her out of comfort, chasing her playfully across the beach, or breaking into tears as his sister's condition continually worsens. There are a couple of places, though, where he doesn't always nail his lines, but that's more toward the end, and even then, it isn't that detrimental to the overall performance.
SETSUKO (Corrine Orr): By contrast, Chrosite's Setsuko is the weak link of the dub. The Japanese version cast an actual 4-year-old to play this sweet, innocent little girl, but the dub does just the opposite in casting an adult actress who raises her pitch as high as possible to sound young. In doing so, however, it comes across as very strained and unnatural sounding — this works against the character. Normally I'd be more excusing of this problem if this movie was a fantasy, but since this is based on a true story, the lack of authenticity in the performance and casting is detrimental. Her crying scenes are especially weak, coming across more like a Siamese cat yowling. Only toward the end of the film where Setsuko gets more and more frail does Corrine find the right tone for the character, but even by then, it's too little to plate. It really is a shame that the dubbing staff couldn't find an actual child to do the role for the dub.
AUNTIE (Amy Jones): The last major part in the movie is Seita and Setsuko's aunt, a self-serving woman who treats the children with coldness and contempt during their (brief) stay with her. Given her harsh attitude toward the children (and kindness toward her own daughter), one would almost feel tempted to call her the villain of the piece. However, this is not the case; she is merely a bitter, frustrated character who is overburdened with both her responsibility and the war situation. Jones plays the character exactly as you'd expect, with a low-key understatedness during her "normal scenes" while being snappish during others.
Competent though two of these actors are, the major point of interest to the Fireflies dub are the cameo roles voiced by popular NYC Anime actors/actresses. These include Veronica Taylor, who is apparently credited for Seita and Setsuko's mother at the beginning of the film, but her voice is deeper than one would expect from her... so much so, in fact that one would assume she didn't actually play her. Her sprightly "young woman" voice is much more noticeable for the sympathetic neighbor who briefly speaks with Seita at the beginning of the film. Nonetheless, she does a fine job. Another recognizable name is Crispin Freeman, a longtime Ghibli fanboy. Believe it or not, this was his first appearance in a Ghibli dub (he would later appear in a brief cameo toward the end of Howl's Moving Castle as Prince Turnip). He uses his "natural" speaking voice for several doctors; while it may not seem like anything special, his enthusiasm for Ghibli and consistently excellent voice work make him a name that should not be doubted. Finally, Dan Green has a lot of miscellaneous speaking roles, most notablyl that of a sympathetic police officer who pardons Seita for stealing food from a farmer (suggesting that the latter has abused the poor kid too harshly). Like Freeman and Taylor, he does a solid job and is enjoyable to listen to.
I didn't recognize most of the other actors in the dub, but they seemed pretty solid as well... although the foley/crowd scenes are somewhat lacking, sounding as though only a small group of people were brought into the studio, creating an unconvincing result. Again, this "problem" is less of a grating issue in other CPM dubs, but it's more so for this film, as there are several major sequences involving thousands of people screaming in terror as the American bombers unleash their explosive artillery on the town. Consequently, these moments don't come across as dramatic as they should.
If Grave of the Fireflies' dub was produced for a different animation studio, I would do nothing less than recommend it. In the context of Studio Ghibli's currently existing dubs, however, Fireflies' dub unfortunately is at the short end of the stick. The cameos by the NYC actors are the real point of interest here.
UPDATE: As you are reading the above, Sentai has recently redubbed the movie for their BluRay release. It's actually better than this, although not quite Disney-quality. But more on that in a future review.