Hey folks, we've been seeing quite a bit of absolute praise for PRINCESS MONONOKE for quite some time now. From everyone from Moriarty even to Roger Ebert. And here in Prankster we seem to pick up a bit of criticism. Of course not everyone looks upon genius and sees it that way. I mean, I look at GONE WITH THE WIND and see a white trash epic that I love the score, cinematography, production design, but really don't care much to watch. So... we all go back and forth. Now don't get me wrong... Prankster here seems to like it, but he does have some nitpicks here and there. Of course with a movie as highly hyped as this one... that is a danger. Here he is reporting from last night's screening in Toronto.
Your unworthy servant The Prankster here, having just returned from the Toronto Film Festival's Gala screening of Princess Mononoke. I and a band of anime-loving Ronin laid seige to the Elgin theater in our quest to lay eyes apon the Divine Master of the Moving Picture, Hayao Miyazaki, and his masterwork. Which we did. Unfortunately my bladder spoke just as he was doing the same. Curses. I caught a fleeting glimpse though.
But it was that or miss the beginning of the movie.
Much has been bandied about on the internet of this film, which has the deck stacked against it in a way that, say, Iron Giant did not. It's a complex (and *long*) tale that is too intense for youngsters, and which is rooted in the preconceptions of a foreign culture; not to mention, it's dubbed into English.
But Mononoke has something other non-Disney animated features haven't:
That is, the full weight of the Disney marketing machine, through everyone's favourite reincarnation of David O. Selznick, Harvey Weinstein. And a marketing team which actually seems to believe in the film, unlike the serenely Zen efforts of WB in releasing Giant ("release it into the marketplace with no support...and what will be, will be.")
I don't care to guess whether Princess will be a success. But herewith, my thoughts on the movie itself.
Praise has been effusive, and to a great degree, it's merited. The animation is stunning, and the pace is mystical and contemplative without ever being boring; if you start to stir in your seat, there'll be another breathtaking visual along in a moment. If I could use just one word to sum up this movie, it'd be "detailed". Not only in the incredibly lavish landscapes and backgrounds, but in the small moments that are an animator's (or animation fans') joy. The way the hero puts his bow around his neck when fording a stream; the way forest spirits pause to stare at a newly- picked twig; the small eye movements and gestures that reveal character in a live-action movie, but which are generally sledgehammered home in animation.
The world this film creates is incredible. I'm pretty well-versed in folklore and myths, but I honestly have no idea how much of this movie is based on existing legend and how much Miyazaki dreamt up himself. It all blends together producing an effect I have never before seen: this world seems like medieval Japan, and some bizarre fantasy world, at the same time. There's no conflict at all, no matter how much historical detail crops up. I guess it's partly because Japanese culture is automatically so alien to our own, but that doesn't explain all of it. There's real magic here, folks.
Then there's the story. The plot is actually not that far removed from a Disney flick, but you won't notice, really. The details again. The world is so breathtakingly realized, the characters so much more real, and the designs so much more innovative, that the plot really does seem beside the point. For a good two-thirds of this movie, we're not really following a plot so much as we are meeting a huge array of characters and places, and seeing how they fit together. And you don't get impatient at all.
Unfortunately, there are a few weak links here. I worship the ground Neil Gaiman walks on, and I have a fast-growing respect for Miyazaki, so I can only conclude that the act of translating one artist's work into another's is what produced a few rough patches. The dialogue sometimes seems a bit awkward, and occasionally gives us more exposition than we need, just as Disney does (ever notice that the first appearance of *every* Disney character is marked by someone stating their name, loudly, so that we don't get confused?) Of course, the simple fact that all this dialogue was written to accomodate mouth-movements *already in place* renders all the above to nit-picking. And there are some brilliant lines, especially from Billy Bob Thornton's character, who we don't see enough of really.
That brings me to the voice actors. Billy Crudup is good, very well-subdued as the hero (I'm afraid I can't remember his name...Ishitaka?) living under a curse. Billy Bob steals the show; he's rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors, and the character is hilarious (without descending to Disney-style cutesiness, of course). Minnie Driver is the other standout, absolutely brilliant as Lady Eboshi. After this and Tarzan, I would plunk down hard-earned cash for a 976 number if Minnie was on the other end. She's one of the best voice actresses I've ever heard, and I don't think it would be a bad move for her to do a third animated film. On the other hand, Gillian Anderson is haunted by the ghost of Scully, even as a talking wolf goddess. I'm afraid she's not quite regal enough. Jada Pinkett Smith brings a nice spirit to a funny character, but it's essentially a cameo. And to round off, I found some of the backup voices a little overdramatic and corny--just 'cause it's a cartoon doesn't mean it has to be over-the-top.
What? Oh yeah--Claire Danes. Well, I have to say she was unjustly maligned in the review that complained she sounded like a valley girl. She's not brilliant, but she's certainly adequate. But as it turns out, it doesn't matter--our Princess is a girl of few words and many actions, and the essence of the character is in her movement, not her dialogue. Her introduction, and the sequence in which she stages a one-woman assault on Irontown with the intent of knocking off Lady E., are nearly wordless, and they're probably the two best scenes in the movie.
Somehow, the great performances enrich the movie, while the mediocre ones don't harm it. These characters manage to stand above the voices they've been assigned.
Any other complaints? Well, there's a bit of a discrepancy between the incredibly fluid action sequences and the more static, jerky scenes in which the characters simply converse. And the movie is too long (at almost 2 and a half hours!), and the climax too prolongued; I've heard Weinstein would like to trim about 15 minutes from the finale, and with all deference to Miyazaki-sama, he's right.
I apologize if, in my attempts to be as detailed as Miyazaki, I have exaggerated minor issues until it seemed as though I did not enjoy this flick. I did love it, and any animation lover should find it worth their while. But unlike Iron Giant or Toy Story, which I can recommend to anyone without qualification, Princess Mononoke is clearly only for the more adventurous and open-minded. This in no way diminishes its worth, but you should be prepared for a movie that requires some effort on the viewer's part; effort at bridging two distinct cultures, and at understanding a densely created world.
And, of course, an eye for detail.