As they say in the boxing biz, let's get ready to rumble. In this corner, weighing in at the same weight as an 800-pound gorilla, with a record of thirty-seven animated features, two computer-generated ones and an untold number of cartoon shorts, the undisputed champion of the animation world, the Walt Disney Studios.
In the other corner, weighing in at a considerably lighter weight, a relative newcomer to the animation field with many knockout hits in native Japan but only a few internationally, the challenger, Japanese anime, with its biggest hit to date, "Princess Mononoke."
While the boxing analogy may be pushing it a bit as anime has actually been around since the 1950s and isn't directly competing against Disney (like other recently released animated features from other domestic studios), this film may challenge the way the folks at the big Mouse House go about doing their business. Interestingly enough, Disney's "art house" arm, Miramax, has acquired and is distributing this film in what some may see as a preemptive strike against such competition.
Although Disney's had plenty of huge and acclaimed moneymakers, it's only had one hit -- "Beauty and the Beast" -- that garnered and truly deserved the many accolades and award nominations it received (including for Best Picture of the Year). The rest of their offerings, while often quite enjoyable to adults, have understandably been aimed primarily at the kiddies of the world with their parents, teens and any others being an additional and certainly welcomed box office bonus.
To kids, and considering its title, star-powered voicing and animated delivery, "Princess Mononoke" may seem like just another Disney-like animated offering. Yet, it's much different and in rather substantial ways. For one, it's clearly not aimed at preschoolers, what with the graphic cartoon violence, deaths and flying body parts, not to mention its running length of more than two hours.
It's also not a musical and as such, the characters don't break into song to further display their emotions and feelings. Most noticeable, however, is the style of animation and the sort of story the film tells. First, for those not familiar with anime, it most closely resembles what most might think of when remembering the old "Speed Racer" cartoon series.
Featuring an animation style that's more hard-edged than the "softer" realism that Disney and other studios try to replicate, the effect is quite striking, but it also may be a bit jarring to those unfamiliar with it. As such, the film doesn't have the complete visual quality most are accustomed to finding in the Disney films. While the computer-supplemented backgrounds here are often quite stunning, the characters are less so and look more like what one would expect to see on Saturday morning cartoons.
That said, it ultimately doesn't really make any difference as the overall story -- the other notable difference from most animated features -- is truly epic in nature. As written and directed by acclaimed anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki ("Kiki's Delivery Service," "Porco Rosso") -- with an English script adaptation by Neil Gaiman -- the film is more than engrossing enough to insure that most viewers will probably be so absorbed in what's occurring with the story that they'll soon forget they're watching an animated feature and thus not care in the slightest how any of it looks.
A universal tale of man versus nature, and expansionism versus environmentalism, the story is nothing short of outstanding, and while Japanese audiences probably better understand the native folklore and mythology that's liberally sprinkled throughout the production, audiences everywhere will easily be able to identify with and appreciate most of what occurs.
What makes the film so much more complex than your run of the mill animated feature, however, are the richly drawn characters. I'm not referring to the previously discussed animation, but instead to the fact that the characters here have more "gray" than technicolor aspects. Members of both sides of the epic battle have both their good and bad points, and by being portrayed more realistically, the film avoids the traditional animated trappings of such characters being either purely good or evil.
Characters one initially considers to be villains, such as Lady Eboshi, turn out to have decent characteristics (her efforts to "rescue" the less fortunate) that make them far more complex than usually found in animated features and, as a result, that much more difficult to root against.
Helping that along are the fine vocal talents of the performers assembled to dub the original Japanese film into English. While many cinema purists balk at dubbing and favor subtitles, the fact that the characters' lips aren't synched up to the voices makes the point moot.
While Disney often partially draws their characters to resemble the people voicing them (thus such aural distractions are kept at a minimum), the characters here obviously don't resemble the new vocal talent. As such, and aside from Billy Bob Thornton whose drawl is quite noticeable, but properly effective, and Gillian Anderson whose voice is recognizable, the rest of the performers, including Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver and Claire Danes do a decent job "sinking" into their characters without overpowering them with what could have been their distracting, distinctive voices.
While the anime style of animation might not be what most have come to expect from such features, the picture is so breathtaking in epic scope that most probably won't mind the less than realistically drawn characters. Far more complex -- and much longer -- than most any other animated feature, and certainly not for the little kids who favor Disney's G-rated offerings, this film might have a hard time finding an audience here in the States. Nonetheless, for those looking for a highly imaginative, enchanting and often exhilarating time at the movies, you won't go wrong this picture. We give "Princess Mononoke" an 8 out of 10.