Princess Mononoke (Japan, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For many years, Walt Disney and his army of crack artists dominated the world market for feature-length animation, bringing forth unforgettable classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio. Even today, many North Americans are oblivious to the existence of an animated product beyond that of Disney and its competitors' clones (Fox's Anastasia, Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt). But there is one out there, and it's a force that gains strength and momentum every day with each new release. Anime, or Japanese animation, still occupies a cult niche in the United States, but its fans are passionate and hungry for new titles (note the ever-growing anime sections in stores that sell movies). Now, with the arrival of Princess Mononoke on multiplex screens, Japanese animation is getting its first full-scale theatrical launch. It remains to be seen whether the epic fantasy storyline will attract enough of an audience for this to be considered a breakthrough, or whether the film will quickly disappear from sight (like another of 1999's best animated offerings, The Iron Giant).

The director of Princess Mononoke is something of a living legend: Hayao Miyazaki, whom Roger Ebert called "a [Japanese] national treasure." Fans of anime uniformly praise his work, stating with enthusiasm that it puts even Disney's best to shame. While I won't go that far, it's impossible to watch something crafted by Miyazaki and not be amazed. His style is different from Disney's, but there's such attention to detail that it's easy to lose oneself in the animation. Perhaps the best way to put it is that Miyazaki's films have a texture that is absent from even some of the most technically adept animated motion pictures. Disney obviously recognizes the high quality of Miyazaki's work - through Miramax, they have purchased the North American distribution rights to all of his films. The first Miramax/Miyazaki title, Kiki's Delivery Service, was released direct-to-video; Princess Mononoke will have a theatrical run before taking its place on Blockbuster shelves.

As was the case with Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke has been "Americanized" by Miramax. No content has changed and no scenes have been cut, but familiar English-speaking actors (Billy Crudup, Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver) have been brought in to record a new soundtrack. That means no subtitles, and, because dubbing isn't a major problem with animation, there's no obvious mismatch between lip movements and words. So a language barrier should not be an impediment to Princess Mononoke's financial success. And, while the film is unlikely to set any U.S. records, it was highly profitable in its country of origin. During its Japanese theatrical run in 1997, Princess Mononoke broke all previous box-office records (it was subsequently topped by James Cameron's Titanic).

Unlike most animated motion pictures, which have a relatively limited scope, Princess Mononoke is an epic saga, a fantasy adventure of great ambition and extent. The visuals are not as polished as Disney's, but the plot is deeper and richer than anything that has emerged from the Magic Kingdom. It is more adult in nature - although there is no overt sexuality, the violence is reasonably graphic (there are decapitations and instances when bloody limbs are torn or hacked from bodies). There's also an intelligence and sophistication in the writing that one rarely finds in animated endeavors. Most children will appreciate Princess Mononoke, but this is truly an adult experience. You don't have to feel guilty about entering a theater if you're not accompanied by a five-year old.

The film, which takes place in ancient Japan at the dawn of the Age of Iron, is loosely based on Japanese mythology and is fundamentally about the eternal conflict between man and nature (as such, there's actually a conservationist message). When the story begins, a Curse God is approaching a small village in Northeast Japan, destroying everything in its path. Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) rides out to stop it. However, while he succeeds in killing the creature, its touch afflicts him with a curse that will eventually kill him. The village wise woman tells Ashitaka that his only hope for survival is to travel West and find the Forest Spirit, who may deign to cure him. So, alone with his faithful mount, Ashitaka begins a long and perilous trek.

Eventually, Ashitaka comes to Irontown, a remote human settlement populated by society's outcasts and ruled by the Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). Irontown is under siege from samurai and is also waging a war with the Boar Gods and other Gods of the Mountains. During an attack by the Wolf God, Moro (Gillian Anderson), her two sons, and her human "daughter", San (aka "Princess Mononoke", voiced by Claire Danes), Ashitaka saves two men, and, as a result, is welcomed into Irontown by Eboshi. Ashitaka has not been in Irontown long when San makes a foolhardy solo attack, intending to kill Eboshi. Ashitaka pleads with her to stop, but she will not listen. He then knocks her out to save her life, and, after being shot, flees into the forest with her. After they are safe, he collapses, and San must decide whether to help him or kill him. When the Forest Spirit appears and heals his wound (but does not remove the curse), San decides that Ashitaka's life is not hers to take.

From that point, the story becomes more complex, with Ashitaka and San caught between warring humans and forest creatures, heading towards a final conflict that could spell disaster for everyone involved. One of the film's great strengths is that it does not demonize any character. Even the ostensible villains have laudable characteristics. Eboshi, for example, is not malevolent - she is simply doing what she feels is necessary to make Irontown a happy and prosperous place. If that means destroying the forest and killing the boars and wolves that defend it, then she sees that as a worthy goal.

Is Princess Mononoke suitable for children? Probably not for the very young - the complexity of the story may confound them. (The violence isn't much of an issue, since it's not a great deal more intense than what kids see during some Saturday morning cartoons.) However, older boys and girls will be caught up in the film's adventure and impressed by its animation, although they will likely miss some of the plot's many subtleties.

The film offers striking and detailed visuals that are good enough to stand toe-to-toe with anything to emerge from Disney's animation division. The forest of Princess Mononoke is as wondrous a place as that of Tarzan. With their expressive faces and wide eyes, there are no emotions that Miyazaki's humans are incapable of expressing. Several images are particularly memorable: the undulations of the snakes that cover the Curse God, the sight of the Night Walker transforming into the Forest Spirit, and the distant view of Irontown sitting majestically atop a hillside overlooking a lake.

Fantasy adventures have generally not fared well at the box office. Because of the heavy special effects demands of such films, animation seems like a perfect alternative to lumbering, overbudgeted live action efforts (like Dragonheart). While it's true that there have been animated fantasy movies before, they have either been hampered by poor production values (Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings) or aimed at a less mature audience (Disney's The Black Cauldron). If there's a film to reverse this trend, it's Princess Mononoke. With a running length of nearly 2:15, this epic picture opens a vast world of romance, fantasy, and excitement that is unlike anything to emerge from a Western studio.

Princess Mononoke (Japan, 1997)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1