The Pre-Disney Ghibli dubs
A look at the early dubs for Ghibli's movies.
Much has been written about the Disney dubs of the movies for Studio Ghibli, but in this thread I wanted to give my opinions on the earlier English versions for these movies, all of which were distributed by Streamline. Keep in mind that I have only seen three of these dubs, either in whole, or in bits in pieces.
The most famous of these older dubs is the My Neighbor Totoro dub, which was lucky to get both a theatrical release here in America and a VHS release from FOX. Say what you will about Carl Macek, but this dub of Totoro is actually one of his finest moments ever. The voices are fitting and appropriate, the acting is solid, and the script is mostly well-written... although I DID detect a couple of stilted sounding lines now and then. To be honest, I have trouble deciding whether I like this version or the Disney version better; both are charming dubs in their own right.
The same is true with the old dub of Kiki's Delivery Service, produced by the same team who did Totoro. You may even be surprised to know that the voice of Kiki in this older dub is the same voice actress who did Satsuki in Totoro (Lisa Michelson). Unfortunately, I have only been able to listen to samples of this dub on Crystalacids.com, yet what I heard of it sounded pretty much on par not only with their version of Totoro, and Disney's version too. Only difference is that Jiji, although still male, doesn't have the comic timing of Phil Hartman (whose voice I still get a kick out of in the dub) and there aren't so many embellishments to the background music. Otherwise, I'd say both are tied in quality, although I AM a bit more partial to Kirsten Dunst's Kiki, Matthew Lawrence's Tombo, and Hartman's Jiji.
There are a number of fans who say that the previous dub of Castle in the Sky outclasses Disney's version, but when I heard it for myself, I was completely disappointed. For anyone wondering if they should see this version instead of Disney's, DON'T. Despite the arguments that it's less loose than the current release, the overall quality of this older dub is among the absolute worst I have ever listened to in years. The voices are painfully lifeless, generic, annoying, or downright boring, the acting is both robotic and emotionless, and the script is very, very choppy and not well written at all. Even the voices for Pazu and Sheeta (Barbara Goodson and Lara Cody) suffer. While Disney's VAs of these two characters (James van der Beek and Anna Paquin) may have sounded somewhat older, their performances far outclass their older dub counterparts, both of who sound very artificial and devoid of any genuine emotion. The supporting cast fares even worse, with Muska and Dola's VAs (Jeff Winkless and Rachel Vanowen, repsectively) absolutely paling compared to Mark Hamill and Cloris Leachman, Disney's dub may not be perfect, but it is miles better than this '80s trainwreck; in fact, when Carl Macek heard the older dub of Laputa, he was compelled to show he could do better and made the old dub of Totoro to prove it.
I have not heard the older dub of Porco Rosso, but the impressions I heard of it were not too favorable. Like Laputa's older dub, it was produced by unknowns and then snatched up by Streamline for distribution. I really enjoyed Disney's version (just like I do for ANY of these movies), but this dub is not so easily accessible, so I cannot offer judgment.
The last of these "pre-Disney" dubs should hardly be called a proper dub at all, as it is a travesty that even Miyazaki wanted everyone to forget about. That version in question is "Warriors of the Wind", which transformed Nausicaa from a two-hour epic with an ecological angle into a 85-minute edit, altered the cast's names, and basically rewrote the story... all without Ghibli's permission. And from a sample I heard of the dub, the acting isn't even half good. (And yet the owner of Ghibli Blog said Disney's version was worse on IMDB! Go figure.) It really is no wonder that Miyazaki and Ghibli were so offended by this version. Thank goodness the current dubs by Disney are all uncut and done under his name, despite what others may feel about them.
As for their availability, the Totoro dub was on FOX video; Kiki's older dub only got released on a Japanese Laserdisc; Laputa and Porco's older dubs are both on their Japanese R2 DVD releases. Unfortunately, they are not likely to be made available again, mainly now that Disney holds the rights. However, anyone who is perfectly fine with the new dubs Disney has provided won't even care, for as far as dubbing goes, one can't get any better than the dubs from the Mouse House. The older dubs are more hit and miss and not very consistent in quality, although "Totoro" and "Kiki"'s older dubs, as mentioned, do compare favorably well to their current versions.