Sunday, March 28, 2010

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Once upon a time, when the Anime industry was still non-existant and the only way fans of this new form of art could have any access to it was through importing fan-subtitled videotapes, it was a common, although very controversial, practice for American companies to take Japanese produced movies, or series, and cobble the "footage" into something "marketable" for mainstream audiences.  Needless to say, this was a practice that many fans didn't take very kindly to, least of all one particular director named Hayao Miyazaki.  Around this era of cut-and-paste compilations, Miyazaki's 1984 animated epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, despite achieving cult status with both the Japanese public and overseas fans, suffered from a heavily edited American release.  Chopped down from its two-hour running time into a 90-minute edit, and altering much of the plot and characters, the resulting disaster was infamously known as "Warriors of the Wind".  Needless to say, Miyazaki was appalled by this treatment; so much so, in fact, that he declared that any future adaptation of his work should be done under his terms.  As such, the public was denied of Miyazaki's work for more than twenty years.

Flash forward about twenty years later.  Having successfully produced English versions of six Ghibli features under their agreement with the Japanese studio, Disney commissioned a brand-new dub for what many fans consider one of Miyazaki's most important films ever.  Unlike "Warriors", however, this version would not omit even one second, nor even change even one aspect of its storyline or characters.  In fact, the only thing that would count as an alteration of any kind is the inclusion of the celebrity and voice actors and English dialogue.  (As well as a few minor terminology tweaks.)  So how did Disney's new version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind turn out?  Well, as usual, reaction ranged from genuinely favorable to harshly critical.  (The owner of the Ghibli Blog, for instance, once declared on a now deleted post on IMDB that the redub of Nausicaa is actually worse than "Warriors of the Wind" "if I was really rotten.")  Whether it was derided or praised, a good majority of viewers agreed that, after what New World Video had done to Nausicaa, anything else had to be a considerable improvement.

As "Warriors of the Wind" shouldn't even be counted as a proper dub at all, I will not even cover it in my mentioning of my review, except that I did manage to see a brief clip of it.  Needless to say, it's below the standards of the current version, even if it does feature respected actors like Jack Angel, Hal Smith, and Ginny Tyler, and it doesn't help that it was heavily edited.  The performances in Disney's dub, meanwhile, are an entirely different matter.  Produced by the now expected team of ADR director Rick Dempsey and scriptwriters Donald and Cindy Hewitt, the new dub of Nausicaa is a fresh, competently produced effort that easily outclasses its predecessor.

NAUSICAA (Alison Lohman) -- The titular character of Miyazaki's epic tale is a very demanding and essentially challenging one.  Nausicaa is a strong-willed but sometimes vulnerable teenage girl with a compassionate, caring nature and a strong stand on solving problems without using violence.  Simultaneously, she is wrestling with her own inner demons of anger (as evidenced in the scene where she flies into a murderous rage at her father's killers) and has some very poignant moments of fragility.  All of this makes for a daunting task for any actress; initially it seemed as though Natalie Portman (yes, Queen Amidala) would be speaking for this character, but in the end, the role went to Alison Lohman.  Her performance as this character has divided many viewers--an atmosphere not much different from other lead characters in Ghibli/Disney dubs.  Most reviewers greeted her performance very favorably, but others found her lacking in every way.  (The cruelest critic of all was the owner of the Ghibli Blog, who declared that Lohman "sounds more like the typical teenage girl on a Disney Channel sitcom. Good glayvin, she can't even yell properly.")  In fact, there are a few places where her delivery isn't always strong, mostly in some of the more quiet scenes (such as her exploration of the gloomy area beneath the quicksand pit).  But to castigate her overall performance based on a few minor setbacks would seem unfair, because overall, Lohman does a very commendable job.  Vocally, she has a genuinely calm, pleasant tone which never ventures into saccharine territory, and while there are a few moments where her shouting or screaming scenes falter, other such moments are very strong... particularly at the climax where she struggles against a baby Ohmu.  In this latter sequence, she gives her all.  Not the strongest performance in the dub, but better than average overall.

LORD YUPA (Patrick Stewart) -- The first person to speak in the dub is this elderly but charismatic swordsman, who serves as something of a mentor to Nausicaa and aids her plight to keep the piece.  Stewart's deeply rich baritone is instantly recognizable, bringing a dramatic gravitas to this character and adds a powerful presence to the cast.  Unsurprisingly, too, he adds himself to the tradition of the usual "show-stealer" that these dubs often have.  Whether he is talking with Nausicaa or addressing the Tolmekians in a stern tone, Stewart shows why he is a true pro when it comes to both acting and in voicing a character.  Another quirk about his performance is that he is not really "lip-synching", since all that is seen of the character when he talks is his moving moustache.  Patrick jokes in the voice talent featurette that he is "moustache-synching", and he does that with style.  (Interestingly, some time after this, he would show up in another Anime, Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy, alongside another Ghibli alumni, Castle in the Sky's lead actress Anna Paquin, but that's another topic altogether.)

MITO (Edward James Olmos) -- There are several male characters in Nausicaa's kingdom who serve as her trusted servants/allies, and Mito is one such person.  In addition to being fiercely loyal, he is very concerned for his charge.  He also has a bit of a "rough and ready" edge, as evidenced when he tries to shoot down a Tolmekian craft carrying a badly damaged Ohmu baby.  Olmos has a considerably scratchy-sounding voice which is fairly appropriate for the character, although there are moments in his performance where he comes across as though he's reading.  Otherwise, however, it's a decent role all around.

KUSHANA (Uma Thurman) -- Like Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, this character is a very fierce, strong-willed figure of authority (in this case, the Princess of the Tolmekian Army) who insists on destroying a natural resource (the Toxic Jungle) for the sake of saving her people.  Unlike Eboshi, however, Kushana is a much more ruthless and less sympathetic character--even after Nausicaa, Yupa, and the elders from the valley combined pardon her, she is still deeply committed to awaken the most deadly creature in the world (the Giant Warrior) to carry out her cruel vengeance.  Thurman conveys these bitter aspects of the character aptly; although unlike Minnie Driver, she does not use an accent.  Nonetheless, she does have a steel, harsh quality to her voice which works in favor of her declarations of war and threats.  Yet as Kushana is not really an "evil" person, Thurman wisely steers her performance around cliche territory.

KUROTOWA (Chris Sarandon) -- One thing I've always found amusing in the Ghibli dubs is the casting of actors best known for their roles in the cult-classic The Princess Bride.  In Castle in the Sky, we have Mandy "Inigo Montoya" Patinkin as one of Dola's goofy but loveable sons, Cary "Westley" Elwes speaks for both Donald Curtis in Porco Rosso as well as the Baron in both Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, while Prince Humperdinck gets to play this sneaky swordsman who serves as Kushana's ally.  Actually, Sarandon is no stranger to voice acting, as animation fans remember him best as Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Nonetheless, the snide, somewhat smarmy tone he provides to Kurotowa brings him somewhat more in line with the role he's famous for in Rob Reiner's film.  He makes the most of his scenes, and, if it weren't for Stewart, would probably tie as one of the best in the dub.  Either way, though, it is gratifying to hear Humperdinck -- sorry, Sarandon -- participate in a Ghibli production.  One wonders if he'll participate in another.

ASBEL (Shia LaBeouf) -- If there is a weak link in the dub of Nausicaa, it may be for LaBeouf's performance as Asbel, the aggressive prince from Pejite who eventually becomes Nausicaa's friend and ally.  Vocally, LaBeouf does have the right tone for the character, but his actual acting is another matter.  His initial readings come across as rather stiff and monotonous.  It's not drastic enough to bring down the dub, but it is definitely not one of the strongest performances in a Ghibli dub.  (Even James van der Beek's Pazu, while -- perhaps unfairly -- criticized for sounding more mature than his character, was a lot more, well, animated in his actual acting than here.)  That said, he does grow more into his role (although considering that he has a considerably small part in the film it's really hard to say how Asbel could be better fleshed out vocally), and moments where he is thrust into action (threatening the guards to release Nausicaa, or helping the latter escape when his carrier is attacked) are definitely all uphill from his first appearance.

PEJITE MAYOR (Mark Hamill) -- This marks the second time that the multi-talented voice actor formerly known as Luke Skywalker participates in a Disney/Ghibli production.  His first, an impeccable turn as the deviously treacherous Muska, has always been hailed as one of Castle in the Sky's greatest strengths.  Compared to that role, however, the Mayor of Pejite is a considerably smaller part, and as such, Hamill's voice work here isn't as outstanding.  That said, it is gratifying to hear him in another film by Miyazaki, even as a cameo.  A note about the character:  the Mayor of Pejite is not a villainous character, but rather, a misguided man dedicated to protecting his tribe regardless of whether his ruthless decision to send a stampede of raging Ohmu toward Nausicaa's home kingdom causes any harm.  Hamill plays him as such; while his harsh, gritty tone is somewhat similar to Muska, he wisely steers around making the Mayor another "evil" character.

KING JIHL (Mark Silverman) -- The father of Nausicaa, the bedridden ruler of the Valley of the Wind, has a considerably scanty but noteworthy part.  Silverman has the sort of aged voice that works very well for this character and he sounds very solid throughout.

OBABA (Tress MacNeille) -- Adding yet another role to her rather impressive list of credits in a Ghibli dub, Miss MacNeille plays this blind old woman who serves as something of a fortune-teller.  Her voice is considerably raspy and very ancient in tone; this is not an easy trick to pull off, but Tress manages it well.

The rest of the vocal cast consist of Disney's standard use of traditional voice actors for other roles, all of who blend seamlessly into the cast.  The late Tony Jay (better known to Disney fans as Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame) provides a brief opening narration (ala Keith David in Princess Mononoke); James Arnold Taylor, Frank Welker, and Jeff Bennett voice three "elderly" characters who are both warriors and loyal servants to Nausicaa; and other voices such as Bridget Hoffman, Edie Mirman, Peter Renaday, and Robert Clotworthy can all be heard among the incidental cast.  Hey, even Jodi Benson (yes, Ariel herself) makes a brief but noteworthy cameo as a woman who serves as an important plot point to the character of Asbel.  One thing that is also noteworthy about the Nausicaa dub is that the children of the valley are voiced by actual children.  I like this, as it adds an authenticity to an already compelling epic drama.  Not that you can't cast adults to voice children provided they do it convincingly, but ADR director Rick Dempsey nonetheless deserves to be commended on his part for striving for that touch of realism.

Scriptwriters Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt again rise to the task of adapting Miyazaki's own screenplay into a smooth, natural-sounding ADR script, and they do so seamlessly.  Any changes to the dialogue are not out of spirit with the original; what may be controversial to some fans, though, is the minor tweaking of some terminology.  Readers who have grown accustomed to the comic book series of the same title will notice that Nausicaa's glider, Mehve, is simply called a "glider"; all the insects are referred to as simply insects or giant dragonflies, and the deadly area that our protagonists venture into is called the "Toxic Jungle".  This latter change was included in the "Warriors of the Wind" dub, but before anybody criticizes Disney for supposedly stealing this term, keep in mind that the Hewitts never even saw the edit, and that the decision to use this term was made due to careful consultations with Ghibli.

All in all, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind ranks as yet another noteworthy entry to the cannon of the Disney-Ghibli dubs, effectively erasing dreaded memories of the travesty that New World Video was responsible for.  Although not without its occasional stiff moments and sync issues (there is one moment where Obaba is talking where the mouth doesn't seem to match her words), this new Disney edition is still very much welcome overall.  I tip my hat to the folks at the Mouse House.

Spice and Wolf

Spice and Wolf is a tricky show to dub; the main thrust of the show is, surprisingly, economics, and many of the long conversations in the show are the equivalent of verbal warfare as one character tries to convince another to agree to some sort of business dealing. Add in the fact that Holo has a very formal, archaic accent and style of speaking in the original Japanese version, and you have some quite large potential headaches. Thankfully, Funimation has met the challenge head-on and produced a fantastic dub for the show. In fact, I would actually recommend watching the show in English prior to watching the Japanese since the conversations are much easier to follow without having to read the subtitles. Onto the cast!

CRAFT LAWRENCE (J. Michael Tatum)-Tatum has quickly become one of Funimation's stock actor, and he's shown to have both massive reserves of talent and range. Lawrence is probably his most down-to-earth role yet, and Tatum is unsurprisingly excellent in the role. He brings an amiable, "horribly good-natured" (to quote Holo for a moment) charm as well as a much lighter voice than we're used to hearing from him to the role (most of Tatum's characters tend to have very deep voices), and he sounds completely natural in the role. He also handles Lawrence's moments of anger, sadness or embarrassment beautifully, never overacting any of them. It's another great notch to add to Tatum's belt.

HOLO (Brina Palencia)-As good as Tatum is, Brina Palencia completely steals the dub with her magnificent star turn as Holo. It helps that Holo is one of the best-written, most fascinating female anime leads in recent memory, and Ami Koshimizu's performance was admittedly quite memorable to begin with (I say "admittedly" because I tend to not be much of a sub fan). I called Palencia's work here a "star turn" because it may be her best performance yet, as she gets to run the whole gamut of emotions, sometimes in a single episode! The difficulty of playing a character like Holo is that her moods are quite fickle; by turns she can be playful, vain, arrogant, furious or even unintentionally insensitive, such as when she goes too far in teasing Lawrence about wolves possibly eating him early on. Thankfully, Palencia matches Holo beat-for-beat with a formal, almost regal tone that often has an air of arrogance or haughtiness about it, though that certainly doesn't negate Holo's likability. One of her most memorable moments comes early on when Holo eats a potato that is too hot and she grumbles "Stupid potato!" in a way that is simply hilarious that print cannot accurately convey; you have to see it for yourself. Palencia also plays off of Tatum so wonderfully that it almost seems like they're actually recording in the same room. In short, Palencia's performance alone makes this dub worth watching.

CHLOE (Jamie Marchi)-While Holo and Lawrence carry the lion's share of the show between him, the supporting cast has some equally memorable players. The first is Marchi's Chloe, who seems nice at first but turns out to have an incredibly nasty streak later on, and Marchi sells it all, with her best scene being her cruel taunting of Holo when the latter has been captured. Marchi makes it her mission to make the audience completely hate Chloe by the end of this scene, and she succeeds so well that her comeuppance is even more satisfying than it already was.

ZHEREN (John Burgmeier)-Burgmeier's always had a certain sleazy quality in his performances, and Zheren is perhaps his sleaziest, a young man who attempts to con Lawrence and Holo in the first half of the series and nearly succeeds. Burgmeier is great here, and he made me suspicious of Zheren long before Lawrence did, which was almost certainly intentional.

NORA (Leah Clark)-Clark uses a very light, soft voice to the young shepherd who falls in with Lawrence and Holo in the second half of the series, and it works quite well. Clark also brings a great air of mystery as we're not quite sure of Nora's motives until almost the end. Is she really as nice as she seems, or is she hiding something and can't be trusted? Clark is perfect in this area as well as Nora's genuine kindness.

The rest of the cast consists of one-to-three shot characters, such as Chris Sabat's ultimately helpful Marlheit, Kent Williams' nervous Lemerio, Chuck Huber's distrustful Liebert or Eric Vale's womanizing Weiz. All the above actors perform perfectly, as do the many other one-shot or minor performers. Overall, Spice and Wolf is a great dub that I give my full seal of approval.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Porco Rosso (Disney and JAL Versions)

Despite creating four genuinely well-received (if not critically) English tracks for Ghibli's works, it wasn't until the acquisition of Spirited Away's Oscar for Best Animated Feature that Disney decided to proceed with more English adaptations of Ghibli features.  Their next project was Porco Rosso, which is arguably one of the oddest entries in director Hayao Miyazaki's output.  It also happens to be one of this writer's least favorite of his, but that's another topic.  The dub, hailed by Ghibli insiders as their finest yet, premiered at the Austin Film Festival in 2003 before debuting on DVD on 2005.  That said, reception to it, like all the other Ghibli dubs, have been divided.  There were reviews that sang praises (at places like DVDTimes, UltimateDisney, and DVDTalk), but others were negative for whatever reason (The Ghibli Blog, who dubbed this as "the most frustrating" of the Ghibli-Disney dubs, decrying it as a case of "Disney treating Ghibli's movies like their syrupy cartoon features", as well as Australia's DVDNet, calling it one of the "worst" Disney dubs yet, saying that the actors show no enthusiasm for their roles).  Needless to say, even with a man as respected as John Lasseter at the helm for these dubs since Spirited Away (or even a skillful ADR director like Jack Fletcher), detractors will probably decry these Disney versions as blasphemy either way, and there are some who actively dislike this dub even after its release.  In spite of what the naysayers say, however, any of the Disney Ghibli dubs have done nothing but introduce newcomers to Miyazaki's works, and there are plenty who get a kick of them, including this writer.

As someone who wasn't all that thrilled with Porco Rosso to begin with and as a genuine fan of all the Disney-Ghibli dub tracks, Disney's version is yet another winner, with top-notch performances and writing all around.  Scripted by Spirited Away's Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt, who helmed all the other dubs after Spirited, painstakingly and directed by Tony Bancroft, Disney's dub of Porco Rosso features the usual star-studded cast of actors and smooth, natural writing that one would come to expect from any of their dubs.

Even so, it is important to note that, like Castle in the Sky (LaputaKiki's Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Totoro, there was an early dub prior to Disney's release briefly distributed, but not produced, by Streamline Pictures.  The pre-Disney dubs of Ghibli have been a mixed bag for this viewer.  Macek's own dubs for Kiki and Totoro were better than average and quite good for their day, but Laputa's, produced by an unknown company and distributed by Streamline, was a complete disaster, paling miserably compared to Disney's version (controversial though it may be with fans, the current dub surpasses the '80s version by far).  The same is true of Japan Airlines' Porco Rosso.  While Disney's version of this oddball Miyazaki classic is skillfully done, the JAL version (not done by Streamline, as some fans will say), is just the opposite.  It's as embarrassing as the aforementioned JAL Laputa dub, distractingly cartoonish, and downright laughable.  It's a wonder how anyone can prefer this to the current Disney version.  (It should be noted, too, that this older dub of Porco, like Laputa's, was produced very quickly by an unknown company and saw a limited release, which explains why it isn't very well remembered.)

The cast of Porco Rosso is a considerably small one, so only the principal roles will be fully covered in my review.

PORCO ROSSO (Michael Keaton, Disney dub; Barry Gjerde, Streamline dub) -- Even as someone who doesn't really mind some of the more controversial casting choices of Disney's other dubs (e.g. Phil Hartman in Kiki, the leads in Castle, and San and Jigo in Mononoke), I was a little unsure about Keaton portraying the titular character, a (literally) pig-headed pilot who makes a living as a bounty hunter while also earning himself a reputation as a rebel and a womanizer.  Not that I have any sort of loyalty to the original Japanese version or even the supposedly superb French version featuring Jean Reno, but having seen the film at least one time in its native language track, I had an idea of how Porco should sound, and Keaton wasn't it.  After seeing the dub for myself, however, I laid my case to rest:  Keaton is an excellent Porco.  He tends to be deadpan most of the time, and yet somehow this works in favor of his world-weary nature.  When the moments arise for him to shout or be energetic, Keaton does that with pinanche.  Some may have trouble with the occasional pig-grunts he makes, but I personally found it very fitting and added to the role.
By comparison, Barry Gjerde in the JAL dub misfires from the start as the title character.  Although I could sort of see the character with the deep voice he provides, his Porco sounds even more detached than Keaton.  Particularly embarrassing is a slow, drawn-out, "the dirty rotten scu-u-um."  His laugh also sounds very phoned in, forced, and frankly, not very convincing.  He's guilty of overacting as well.  Even the scenes where Porco supposed to raise his voice never once ring true.  Most cringeworthy example: "Shut u-u-u-u-up.  Just get out of here and leave us alo-o-o-o-one."  Not only is it laughable, it doesn't match the visuals on screen at all.  (It also is strangely reminiscent of Cam Clarke's equally cringeworthy turn as Kaneda from the older Akira dub.)  Opinions may be divided on Keaton, but one listen to Barry's take, and I have to state that Michael has the upper advantage here.  It's at least not as hokey-sounding or lifeless.

DONALD CURTIS (Cary Elwes) -- Aside from Porco, the other major character in the film is his rival, a dashing, boastful pilot who falls for every pretty woman he comes across.  Based on this description, he ought to be a villain, but Miyazaki doesn't characterize him as such.  Neither does Elwes, although he does manage to put across his aggressive swagger and arrogance in a way that would make Curtis teeter toward that area.  Even so, it is a very peculiar casting choice, as Elwes, like Jada Pinkett-Smith's Toki in Princess Mononoke, is clearly playing against type.  Curtis is a Southerner (or at least that's what Disney's dub chracterizes him as), and it feels very strange to hear the very British Elwes trying to sound like he's from Texas!  Yet he clearly is enjoying himself, whether he is making proposals to Gina or Fio or taunting Porco in mid-air fights.  A note about the character's origin:  in the Japanese version, Curtis is from Alabama, but due to lipflap purposes, it was decided to make him come from Texas.  Whether that is a distraction or not depends on the viewer.
The voice in the JAL dub itself isn't bad, per say, but his actual acting is another matter.  The normal moments are mediocre at best, and his boastful scenes lack both swagger and smugness.  He's also saddled with laughable dialogue such as "the damn thing's stu-u-uck!" and "Shut up sausage face!"  His most groan worthy moment is when he's pursuing Porco in the clouds, not even yelling forcefully enough, "Don't be a chicken, pig.  Fight me now."  Oddly, he even seems to overact in the wrong moments, particularly in the scene where he attempts to court Gina.  While Elwes plays it smoothly and subtly, his JAL counterpart sounds like he's not really taking it seriously at all.  He doesn't use a Southern accent of any kind, but in exchange, it's not a particularly good performance, nor frankly, anything remarkable at all.  Elwes puts a lot more life into the part from the start, and easily aces the JAL voice.

GINA (Susan Egan) -- Having shown her skill in as Lin in Spirited Away, it isn't totally surprising that Miss Egan (better known as Belle from Broadway's Beauty and the Beast) gets to play another role in a Ghibli dub, this time as a sultry, thrice(!)-widowed woman who spends most of her time singing at taverns (and yes, Egan does manage to flex her vocal skills with her impeccable reindition of "Les Temps des Cerises") and secretly longing for her childhood friend, Porco, to return her affections.  Egan has the sort of husky, sensual quality that works brilliantly for this character, and she even adds a touch of sarcasm and humor to her performance, particularly in the scene where she fends off Curtis' advance.  She also doesn't hesitate to let out her emotional edge in moments like the scene where Porco telephones the lady at the Hotel Adriano to inform her that he's making an illegal visit to Italy.  Aside from at least one flat line toward the end, "Marco, get up!", Egan's Gina is a solid performance all around.
The major difference between Egan's turn and her JAL counterpart is that her Japanese voice actress' vocal performance of the aforementioned song is retained.  However, her JAL voice actress is lacking in every way.  She doesn't have enough sultriness to provide her singing moments, and there is practically no emotion in her lines (and whatever moments of emotion she does manage either results with emphasis on the wrong syllables or ill-fitting with the visuals onscreen).  Again, it's very detached from the part.  The phone conversation between her and Porco, in particular, falls flat because her voice actress comes across like she's simply reading from the script with no genuine feeling, and speed-reading at that.  It's the very definition of "phoning it in."  Egan is much more passionate and emotional by comparison.  The same is true of her laughing scene.  All in all, Egan's performance is easily superior to her rather miscast JAL counterpart.

MAMMA AIUTTO BOSS (Brad Garrett) -- The Mamma Aiutto pirates could very well be seen as a distant cousin of the Dola Gang from Castle in the Sky, as they are, after all, aerial pirates who aren't as evil as they appear to be.  For this film, however, the leader of these rogues is a burly, bearded man who is clearly referred to as their "boss".  No stranger to playing "heavy" characters of this type, it's unsurprising that Brad manages to fit himself into the character, employing a little bit of "Bluto" into the performance.  He is as gravelly as you'd expect, and he tends to spend a lot of time shouting his lines.  That's not really a criticism, though; for characters of this type, giving a more flat, deadpan kind of voice would work against the character.  Garrett obviously relishes his role from the start, and, even though less memorable compared to Cloris Leachman's Dola, his performance is undeniably funny and a riot.
His JAL counterpart is similarly funny… for all the wrong reasons.  Aside from sounding like a goofy cartoon character with a dopey-sounding voice, he delivers his lines exactly like a stock goofy role.  It's the sort of voice you would expect to hear from Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Ironically, the humor to be gained is the kind that is "so bad it's laughable", not because it's actually funny.  It's just hard to take seriously.

MR. PICCOLO (David Ogden Stiers) -- Also making a return appearance in a Ghibli dub is Disney's own good luck charm, who previously spoke for Kamaji in Spirited Away.  While one wouldn't recognize his voice in that role, here it's hard not to think of him as a cousin of Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast, for the tone he uses for this cheeky engineer is somewhat similar to that role.  Where he manages to make it stand out is by providing him with an appropriately Italian accent.  It's an interesting choice, but it's effective nonetheless.  He also gets to have several opportunities to call Porco out on his disapproving views of women by proclaiming "don't be such a pig."  (This is one of the many opportunities that the English script provides for adding in pork-based humor into the dialogue.)
Like Stiers, JAL's counterpart also provides an Italian accent.  On the flip side, however, his voice is both devoid of character and charm.  He's nowhere nearly as fun to listen to, again, coming across as hokey and cartoony-sounding.  Stiers is the more entertaining of the two by far.

FIO PICCOLO (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) -- Fitting nicely into the usual formula of the show-stealer in any of the Ghibli dubs, Kimberly takes the prize for the Best Performance in the dub as the film's appealing and intriguing young female lead, a sprightly mechanic who is much tougher than she appears and is not afraid to show it in any way.  From the start, Kimberly makes Fio an instantly likeable character to root for, and she especially relishes herself in scenes where she chews the Mamma Aiutto gang out for not playing fair with Porco (one of the funniest scenes in the film).  What ultimately makes her performance a real delight, however, is the chemistry between her and Keaton:  it is a joy to listen to, and what ultimately sells Porco Rosso's dub as a whole.
Fio is also the only halfway decent voice in the JAL dub.  It doesn't sound miscast or cartoonish, for one.  One the flip side, however, her acting is a serious step down from Kimberly, with a lot of lines sounding very awkward, "Great li-i-ines."  She is also guilty of some clumsily delivered bits like, "Greeeeat!  I've already talked to the factory.  I'll order them right away!  You're great, Marco!"  There are a few moments when she comes across as somewhat decent, like her talk with Porco on the beach in the latter half of the movie; even so, such bits are hampered by some unnatural-sounding pauses in-between her lines.  Other scenes where she's supposed to express energy, such as the one where she's scolding the pirates for confronting Porco are also distressingly wooden.  Kimberly was clearly enjoying herself from the start, and for that her performance is easily superior to her JAL voice.  The JAL voice COULD have been a good performance, but sadly it's handicapped by the other problems of the JAL dub.

Naturally, Disney uses their usual stable of actors for the supporting characters.  Goofy himself, Bill Farmer, gets to have a brief role as a photographer for the scene where Fio and the (newly cleaned up) pirates pose for a picture; the ubiquitous Tress MacNeille gets to be a newscaster on a boat as well as several of Piccolo's elderly relatives; and others such as Jeff Bennett, Michael Bell, Debi Deriberry, Corey Burton, Sherry Lynn, Rob Paulsen, and Frank Welker are among the incidental voices.
The JAL supporting cast comes across as brashly loud and like Saturday morning cartoon voices from one of those old school 1960's cartoons by comparison.  There's no soul or life to them.

The Disney script adaptation by the Hewitts is pretty much on the same level as their work on Spirited Away and any of the other dubs they've done:  their ADR script is not word for word with the literal translation (as well as it shouldn't be, as such an approach would only result in stale and awkward-sounding dialogue), but is instead constructed to sound both natural and convey the essence of Miyazaki's unusual tale.  While some purists may make noise about the decision to replace lines like "otherwise I'll kill you" with "I'd hate to put you jerks out of business", personally I applaud the decision, as the latter line sounds more fluent and provides more character as a result.  There are also places where the Hewitts get to work in some extra humor ala Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky, only not to the sometimes extraneous level as those two dubs, while still enjoyable, occasionally stumbled into.  The JAL dub script, in addition to being guilty of omitting a final line from the original, flows nowhere nearly as smoothly.  It also borders on cheesy and laughable, particularly the following exchange between Porco and Curtis in the air:

JAL Curtis:  One on one!  Fight me, pig!
JAL Porco:  Buzz off, sausage breath!
JAL Curtis:  Don't be a chicken, pig.  Fight me now!
JAL Porco:  Take your fightin' stuff off, I'm on vacatio-o-on!

Disney's version goes like this in comparison:

Disney Curtis:  Fight me, pig!  One on one!
Disney Porco:  No thanks, Tex.  Kinda busy.
Disney Curtis:  If you run away, I'll tell everyone you're chicken!
Disney Porco:  Chicken, pig, what's the difference?

More complimentary to the Disney version is that the exchange is better acted and nowhere nearly as embarrassingly cartoonish as the JAL dub.  It should also be noted that the JAL dub does not include the last line of Gina's speech from the end.  Fans will argue that it at least doesn't alter Porco's line "A pig who doesn't fly is just a pig" as opposed to the slightly Disneyfied (to the mouth movements) "Sorry baby, gotta fly."  But accuracy alone does not a better dub make, especially if it's a sloppily written one.  The lip-sync is atrocious as well, with a lot of lines failing to match the mouth movements and obvious gaps.  It gives more of a bad Hong Kong dub vibe.  Again, Disney's dub gets the advantage here.

All in all, while Porco Rosso may not be my favorite Disney-Ghibli dub, it still surprises me to see that it has its share of detractors.  On its own, it is a well-produced, carefully written, entertaining dub that deserves to stand alongside the other English tracks Disney has done.  Not only did it help me to appreciate Porco Rosso as a movie, it entertained me, just as well as a good dub should.  If that doesn't make it a worthwhile dub, I don't know what does.  The JAL dub (only available on the Japanese DVD) is, at best, forgotten.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Azumanga Daioh

Ah, Azumanga Daioh. This, along with Fruits Basket, was one of the first "non-mainstream" anime/dubs I ever watched, and for that I will always be grateful. It's kind of like an animated version of Seinfeld, where conversations can drag on or go off on weird tangents, and not much of consequence really happens aside from the girls building their friendship and graduating school. Still, it's easily one of the better anime comedies out there, and it remains a favorite. The dub's flaws are more apparent than they were when I first watched it, but so are its virtues, thankfully. So, onto the dub:

CHIYO MIHAMA (Jessica Boone) -- I'm still sad that Boone appears to have permanently retired from voice acting, because she's such an excellent performer. That said, her performance here has some occasional flaws; while Chiyo-chan is indeed supposed to be high-pitched and cutesy, occasionally Boone gets a little *too* cutesy and veers into "annoying" territory. Thankfully, it's not that often, and Boone is otherwise wonderfully endearing and funny in the role.

SAKAKI (Christine Auten) -- Weirdly enough, this is one of my favorite performances in the dub, despite the fact that Sakaki doesn't have nearly as much dialogue as some of the other characters. Still, she gets more and more dialogue as the show goes on, and Auten nails it all, from Sakaki's default deadpan mode to her joy as she rolls around on the floor with Maaya near the end of the series. Granted, I'm a huge Auten fanboy anyway thanks to her performance as Izumi Curtis in Fullmetal Alchemist, but her work here is just as good.

TOMO TAKINO (Mandy Clark) -- This is another performance that hasn't aged quite as well, but it's still pretty solid. Like Boone, Clark certainly nails the energy and annoyance factor of Tomo, but that works a little too well sometimes, so she occasionally grates on the eardrums. Still, she definitely gets across that "sugar high" energy of Tomo, as well as her jerkiness, quite well.

KOYOMI "YOMI" MIZUHARA (Nancy Novotny) -- Like Auten, Novotny completely nails her character and sounds totally natural in the part. As a result, Novotny gets some of the funniest moments in the show, such as whenever she scolds Tomo (which is often) or complains about her weight.

AYUMU "OSAKA" KASUGA (Kira Vincent-Davis) -- For the dub, Davis decides to adopt a soft Southern accent for the Osakan native, and using accents to adapt characters from different regions of Japan is not an uncommon practice in dubbing. It's a choice that works for the most part, and Davis backs it up with some great acting. Osaka is terminally clueless, providing many of the aimless conversations in the show, and Davis brings a nice floating, dreamy quality to her voice in addition to the accent that suits Osaka perfectly.

KAGURA (Allison Sumrall) -- Kagura doesn't join the main cast until about halfway through, but Sumrall's likeable, energetic performance makes an instantly winning impression. She also gets a great, purely character-driven conversation with Chiyo-chan later in the show, and Sumrall nails it.

KAORIN (Tiffany Grant) -- Tiffany Grant really makes this character shine; what could have been (and admittedly still kind of is) a stereotypical "schoolgirl lesbian" instead becomes hilarious, and I especially love Grant's performance when Kaorin goes into hyperactive, panicky mode.

YUKARI TANIZAKI (Luci Christian) -- And now we come to the star of the show, ladies and gentlemen. Luci Christian is perfect as the spectacularly unqualified schoolteacher, and I dare you to stop yourself from laughing or at least giggling whenever she opens her mouth. Nearly every moment of Christian's performance is comedy gold, and I daresay it's both one of her shining roles and one of the best dub performances in history. Her performance alone merits the dub a listen.

KIMURA (Andy McAvin) -- McAvin is probably the second funniest actor in the dub, with his perverted deliveries hitting the mark every time. A particular favorite is his legendary delivery of "CAUSE I LIKE HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS, THAT'S WHY!"

MINAMO "NYAMO" KUROSAWA (Monica Rial) -- Miss Rial is sweet, likeable and down-to-earth as the similarly level-headed gym teacher, although she gets plenty of funny, hyper moments as well.

CHIYO-FATHER (Jason Douglas) -- Douglas' deep-voiced performance is just as weird and memorable as the dream cat himself.

Overall, Azumanga Daioh is both an excellent show and a fairly excellent dub. If you haven't seen it, check it out.