1997, PG-13, 135 min. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 26, 1999
“Akira Kurosawa meets Walt Disney on the deck of the Rainbow Warrior” is as good a peg as any to hang on this remarkable film, but let's not simplify things too much. Princess Mononoke is the most successful piece of Japanese animation ever (grossing over $150 million dollars in Japan alone, making it not only the most successful anime but also the most successful film released in Japan ever), packed with an environmentally aware storyline, breathtaking animation, and clever dialogue penned for this American release by none other than Brit fantasist Neil Gaiman (The Sandman). As if that weren't enough, Miramax wisely decided to forgo the usual dubbing nightmare in favor of employing a group of American actors whose voices and abilities were perhaps more up to speed than the usual anime voiceover hackwork. The plot is a seemingly boundless thing, encompassing samurai, forest spirits, and traditional Japanese mythology, though, as complex as this all seems, it manages to come together to create a truly original work of art. Briefly, the film concerns the efforts of the young warrior Ashitaka (Crudup) to save himself and his people after he is bitten by a rampaging forest god infected by an unknown evil. Desperately, he leaves his village and family behind and journeys across the land to meet with the Spirit of the Forest and thereby break the curse that has been put not only on him but also the very land itself. Once there, he meets Princess Mononoke (Danes), literally a wild young woman raised by wolves deep within the forest bowers. Together, they align to battle the evil within the forest and save the proverbial day. What's amazing about the film, though, is its vast palette; Princess Mononoke is filled to bursting with epic battles, gorgeous, jaw-dropping animation that will have the hairs on the nape of your neck rising, and a solidly pro-earth message that's rarely as heavy-handed as you might think (FernGully this isn't). All this is thanks to director Hayao Miyazaki, a legend in Japan and a veritable unknown everywhere else. Even if you don't make it to Princess Mononoke, I can't urge you enough to check out two of Miyazaki's previous films available on tape here in the U.S. -- My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service -- both of which mix timeless, youthful themes with sly, wholly original animation and a decidedly outre sensibility. Good stuff, and not just for kids, if the flood of Totoro toys down at local toy shop Atomic City is any indication. Princess Mononoke's only fault may lie in its epic-for-animation length; at two hours and 20 minutes, it's far too long for most younger children and a bit of a stretch even for some adults. Calling this film a “kid's film,” however, completely misses the point. It is instead a film for the young at heart and those who still appreciate honor, valor, love, and the earth. (Fans of spectacular forest gods will not be disappointed, either.) (opens Wednesday)