Review: Drawn-out Japanese animation in 'Princess Mononoke'
November 15, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- "Princess Mononoke" is a mystical slice of animation that's become the second-highest grossing film in Japan, after "Titanic."
And "Mononoke" has the kind of built-in audience allegiance that producers covet. The "Japanimation" cult here in the United States has been growing steadily for years. That apparently encouraged the release of this 1997 film in this country. From outward appearances, the reasons behind this growing fan base are twofold.
Adults and "deeper" teens can warm to the Japanese tendency to mythologize cartoon characters. If you're the type who thinks the paint-by-number spirituality of "Star Trek" is enlightening, the whispered theology and ecological preservation theme of "Princess Mononoke" will knock your socks off.
And if you're looking for gross-out action sequences seldom found in American animation, director Hayao Miyazaki thoughtfully includes a variety of decapitations and warrior-induced mutilations.
Unfortunately, if you don't fit into either of those categories, you might be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
The characters' voices have been redubbed by big-name, English-speaking stars for the film's stateside release, sometimes to inappropriately amusing effect.
Billy Crudup speaks for Ashitaka, a young adventurer who in the opening scene saves his primitive village by killing a monster that resembles a massive razorback tangled up in pounds of living spaghetti. Thousands of worms ooze around the creature as it tears through the forest looking for trouble; it's easily the scariest worm-infested animated hog you've ever seen.
The hog, we find out, was actually a god who was turned into a demon, and its wormy tentacles have poisoned Ashitaka. The village elders -- who talk in the requisite reverent, knowing tones -- send Ashitaka into the forest to find out who or what poisoned the hog, and make sure it doesn't happen again.
They inform the young man that the poison, which has burned a curlicue scar on his arm, will soon spread through his body so he's pretty much working on borrowed time. Eventually, the arm will take on an ornery life of its own, flailing around evilly without Ashitaka's authorization.
The journey into the forest has moments of quiet beauty. The animation changes gears on a regular basis, though, moving from gorgeous, computer-enhanced vistas to poorly rendered conversations that can only be described as "Speed Racer"-esque.
Like that 1967 Japanese animation staple, the characters' mouths move in a yapping manner that closely resembles Howdy Doody's hinged-jaw chattering. And everybody gasps out loud when something unexpected happens -- which, given the far-out story, is fairly often. Inexplicably, Japanimation has always been ground zero for sudden gasping.
The gasps thicken
The plot gets increasingly convoluted as Ashitaka encounters people who have some piece of enchanted history that they feel compelled to impart.
Billy Bob Thornton is the first guest voice to make an appearance, in the wry comic relief of Jigo. Thornton makes no attempt whatever to cover his Texas accent, which adds an incongruent dimension to his scenes, to say the least. Here we are in a forest full of gods and gnomes, and Ashitaka is suddenly sitting around the campfire with the Tolkien equivalent of Slim Pickens.
And Thornton sounds like he's doing the job as a favor. His line readings are rudimentary at best, as if they turned on the microphone while he was perusing the script for the first time.
Eventually, Ashitaka meets up with a tribe of people who are led by Lady Eboshi, a merciless woman who's been shooting the forest gods with powerful muskets in an attempt to turn them back into plain old animals. Minnie Driver, of all people, lends her voice to Eboshi, and let's just say she isn't as well-cast here as she was in Disney's "Tarzan" this past summer. There's not an ounce of humor in Eboshi, or much charisma for that matter, so why bother hooking up with a life force like Driver? Her discussions with Ashitaka are so solemn you'd think she was in an Ingmar Bergman film.
There also are vocal turns by Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson and Claire Danes. The only one who makes a vivid impression is Danes as Mononoke herself. Mononoke is a princess raised in the forest by a pack of humongous magical wolves, and she moves like a cat that's had its butt rubbed with dried chili peppers. She leaps and swings and scurries, growling and jumping on people with an undomesticated vitality that adds a lot of juice to the proceedings when you're just about to OD on expository conversations.
She's not as cool as those wormy hogs, but it sure beats watching Danes die on the vine in something like "The Mod Squad."
Be warned. You're setting yourself up for schoolboy irritation of all ages if you don't bow before the throne of "Princess Mononoke." The entire undertaking is presented as if we're being taught a very complex lesson in enchantment and earthly conservation, and people who lean toward Japanimation will convince themselves they're watching something visionary. But it's just a cartoon in the (very) long run, and a surprisingly pompous one, at that.
"Princess Mononoke" has an adolescent fixation on garish violence to offset its self-importance. One guy somehow manages to get both his arms cut off with a single arrow, and heads roll when need be. It's all extremely silly, but children should stay away. Rated PG-13. It's 135 minutes long, so you may want to bring a thermos full of coffee.
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