Here’s the next ”Star Wars”-like epic
One of the greatest animated movies ever made was released in U.S. theaters last Friday. I’ll be very curious to see if American audiences can handle it.
The film in question is called ”Princess Mononoke” and it’s the crowning glory in the career of Japanese master animator Hiyao Miyazaki. Released in Japan in 1997 (where it quickly became the country’s top-grossing movie ever, only subsequently knocked out of the No. 1 spot by ”Titanic”), ”Princess Mononoke” is no Disney-style kiddie show. On the contrary, it’s very much NOT for children, given its labyrinthine plot and bouts of cosmic mega-violence. But for any grown-up who can get his or her mind around the vulgar prospect of going to see an animated movie unaccompanied by a knee-high Pokémon junkie, ”Mononoke” pays off in spades. Simply put, this is the most richly realized screen fantasy — of any kind — in years.
While the film takes place in feudal Japan, the characters are archetypal enough to be easily ”read” by a non-Japanese audience. Essentially, ”Princess Mononoke” takes place as human civilization is moving from animistic pagan beliefs into a louder, messier, more complicated modernity. As an iron-smelting city rises on the banks of a pristine lake, the gods of the forest — huge wolves, boars, and apes, all lorded over by a mystical Forest Spirit — realize their reign is at an end and that they will soon become mere dumb animals. The change so fills some with hate that they become demons: ”Mononoke”’s opening scene, with a crazed boar god laying waste to a small village is both terrifying and astonishing. At the center of the tale are two humans who try to balance the warring factions of god and man: a wandering prince called Ashitaka and a feral girl, the princess of the title, named San.
If that sketchy synopsis has your head swimming, don’t worry: Miyazaki envisions this world with such shimmering, translucent artistry that it barely needs a soundtrack. Here, a simple rainstorm is drawn so beautifully that your jaw drops, and the arrival of the Forest Spirit practically constitutes a religious awakening. The all-star cast of English-language voices occasionally delivers less-than-inspired line readings — Billy Crudup is fine as Ashitaka, but Billy Bob Thornton’s Texas twang is all wrong, and Claire Danes is, sadly, just dull as San — but that only slightly dilutes ”Mononoke”’s punch. When it’s over, you realize you’ve witnessed a vision with the cumulative, mythic power of a ”Lord of the Rings,” a ”Narnia Chronicles,” or a ”Star Wars”. In fact, George Lucas can only wish ”The Phantom Menace” was as good — as wondrous and otherworldly — as this.
But will it matter in a land suckled on the Disney way of life and of animation (even if it IS Disney, after all, that’s responsible for Miyazaki’s films getting video and theatrical distribution here)? Will ”Princess Mononoke”’s lack of cutesy sidekicks, yearning heroines, and peppy musical numbers cause American audiences to shut it out? Maybe the question that should be asked is this: If you insist that animation is purely kids’ stuff, does it mean that, on some level, you’re not mature enough to deal with it yourself?