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IN SHORT: A fantastic, breathtaking animated epic. Not for single digit kidlets. [Rated [PG-13], 135 minutes]
I've written many times before about the eventual coming of an animated film for grownups. Word of mouth among other 'toonheads indicated that it might come from Japan, a 1997 creation of Hayao Miyazaki called The Princess Mononoke. Disney/Miramax went to great efforts to keep copies of Mononoke away from the American market but, if you knew where to look (as I did), you could get your hands on a subtitled copy. Which I did. Even with complicated and unfamiliar character names, the Japanese Mononoke was epic in scope, a magnificently animated, complicated story heavily infused with Japanese fantasy, mysticism, culture and legend. I know that for a fact because I couldn't understand the culmination of the flick. Miyazaki's distribution deal allowed no editing of any of his flicks, which meant that whoever adapted the film might have a devil of a time translating Eastern myth into Western story.
That man would be Neil Gaiman, a fantasy writer of the printed page, the television screen, and more to the point, renowned for his creation of The Sandman for DC Comics, a transcendant work which proved that the term "graphic novel" was not an oxymoron. Anyone familiar with Gaiman's work knows that Miramax's choice, based on a recommendation by Quentin Tarantino, was perfect. Virtually all the symbolic content that confounded me in subtitles was clear as a bell in the English dub [and making that cultural translation was the first thing Gaiman and I talked about when he sat for CrankyCritic® StarTalk].
Princess Mononoke is the story of a Mystery; the discovery of its origins and the bonds that form between a boy hero and a wild woman. It is a tale of man versus nature, and the struggle to find a peaceful ground for coexistence. There are occasional moments of violence that are extremely graphic (things like a decapitation by bow and arrow should not be seen, as Miyazaki puts it, by "anyone younger than the 5th grade") that will definitely thrill the teenboy and comics fan. The story is so deep and the symbolism so strong that those who prefer the arthouse releases should be equally enthralled.
As Roman Gods replaced Greek, and Judeo-Christian replaced Roman in the West, so too did a transformation occur in feudal (circa 1300AD) Japan. Ancient forces of Nature and Gods represented by animals were, as far as the fantasy elements of this film are concerned, in battle with human technology for control of all the goods locked away in the woods and earth of Japan. So begins Princess Mononoke as an elder Boar God, carrying a lead bullet in its gut, goes mad and threatens the village of the exiled Emishi clan. Hate and Pain have cursed this God and turned him into a vengeful monster. Defending his village is the Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) who, in killing the God, inherits the Curse. Ashitaka is sent away from his tribe, to find the source of what drove the Boar God insane. In doing so, it is hoped, he will find a cure for the Curse before he, too, is destroyed by it.
In the Ancient Woods to the West of his village, Ashitaka finds San (Claire Danes), a girl who has been raised by the Wolf God Moro (Gillian Anderson) and thus bears the name Princess Mononoke. Mononoke has rejected her human heritage for the companionship of the Kodama (small, ghostlike spirits in the woods) and the wolves who have adopted her. Ashitaka also discovers that the animals of the forest, Wolves, Boar and Apes, are intelligent and have their own caste system that places human beings on a much lower rung. As far as the animal Gods are concerned, war with the humans is inevitable.
The Wolves battle an expanding Ironworks staffed by human outcasts -- brothel women and lepers. Under the command of the Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), its military are equipped with rifles that fire lead bullets very similar to those which killed the Boar God. This presents the pacifist Ashitaka with a real conundrum: if he kills the cause of his Curse (ie. Eboshi) will he be cured or will he, ultimately, have to destroy the Ironworks that has destroyed the land protected by the Boar? And what are we to make of the monk called Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), the self appointed sidekick to Ashitaka? Jigo adds low brow humor to this mix but, when the Prince is away, Jigo is revealed to be a secretive warrior for the Emperor who seeks the head of the very physical Spirit of the Forest. The Emperor, you see, believes that by destroying the Spirit and possessing it's head, he can live forever.
We haven't even begun to skim the depths of the story, folks. Lest I made the movie sound too intellectual, you get comic relief from Jada Pinkett Smith as the ex-brothel girl wife of one of Eboshi's warriors, plus a couple of samurai battles, a vicious knife fight between Eboshi and San, amputations and decapitations and The End Of The World as they know it. The running time above is correct, and there are so many stories, and political and military alliances, running side by side in this film that only once did the pace slow enough to make me look at my watch. The only negatives revolve around the fact that the film is moving from Japanese to English, and that Miyazaki does his animation before the vocals are set to tape. Some of the vocal direction is rushed, making the film sound at times like a dubbed Japanese action flick. This is more noticeable in Danes and Thornton's work, less so in Driver (who has done animation voices before, most notably in Disney's Tarzan) and Crudup's (a first timer, who does the best work of the bunch). The mix doesn't balance the voices properly either, which occasionally draws attention away from the stories.
Those stories, however, are so powerful and so outweigh the technical negatives that, if you just hang on briefly, all the bad stuff will vanish in the misty haze of forgotten memories and all the good stuff will remain. Princess Mononoke is epic storytelling in every sense of the word.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Princess Mononoke, he would have paid...
Definitely recommended. Then again, Cranky's a 'toonhead. The other critics at the press screening I attended, none of them having a clue what they were in for, were also impressed. The question raised by them all was "will this appeal to anyone outside of the arthouse market?"
With the occasional line of dialog like "That man in the weird costume! Who do you suppose it could be??!?" . . . How could it not? <vbg>
A detailed synopsis (including spoilers) of (the Japanese version of) Princess Mononoke can be found at the Studio Ghibli site.
Cranky Critic® StarTalk with Neil Gaiman reveals the secret part Quentin Tarantino played in all of this. [There's even more Gaiman in the Illustrated Guide. If you haven't seen the movie, it's the best place to start.
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