By Beth Hannan Rimmels
I have two words for anyone who still thinks animated movies are for only kids: Princess Mononoke. Hayao Miyazakis fantasy epic, which makes its American debut Oct. 29, has been compared to Star Wars due to its mythic themes and grand storytelling and the comparison is apt. In fact, it might even be better due to its tight but rich storytelling.
Loosely based on Japanese folklore as well as myths from other parts of the world, its the story of war between human civilization and the animal gods of the forest. Prince Ashitaka (voice of Billy Crudup) is cursed while defending his village from a demon. Only after he kills the demon does he realize the creature had been the boar god, a protector of nature, driven mad by hatred. Askitaka leaves his village seeking the source of the boar gods anger in the hopes of removing his curse. He eventually makes his way to Iron Town, a fortress city led by Lady Eboshi (voice of Minnie Driver) who has been decimating the surrounding forest to fuel the forge that drives Iron Towns trade. Shes opposed by Moro, the wolf goddess (voice of Gillian Anderson) and Moros adopted human daughter San, the Princess Mononoke (voice of Claire Danes). Ashitaka tries to find middle ground and end the hatred, but a scheming monk (voice of Billy Bob Thornton) makes the task even more difficult.
Miyazakis story and storytelling are brilliant. Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but theyve gone too far and are too proud to compromise. Rather than just redub a straight translation of the film, Miyazaki and American distributor Miramax hired award-winning fantasy novelist and comic book creator Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere, Sandman, Stardust, Good Omens) to adapt the screenplay so that cultural references would be put into proper context and the poetry of the language would not be lost. Gaiman did an amazing job that included making the words match the characters mouth movements so there would be no Speed Racer-like disorientation.
As good as the story is, the animation is spectacular. The shifts in light and movement of clouds and mist almost make you forget its animated rather than live action. In reality, Miyazaki used a blend of hand-drawn animation and computer generated that seamlessly fused the best of both methods.
A bit violent (a few severed limbs and the like), this is not a film for small children. Rather, its the culmination of animation art with detailed, mythic tale, and a must for all fantasy lovers.
A Miramax release. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Review © 1999 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Stills © 1999 Miramax.