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Princess Mononoke

Leave the Kids at Home

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

English translation by Neil Gaiman

Voiced by Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton

I think that Princess Mononoke is a mess: a narrative jumble with scenes that frequently refuse to work and are either head-scratchingly obscure or unintentionally laughable. I also think you should go and see it right now. Despite all its problems, it’s a grand introduction to the work of one of the world’s top filmmakers. As a film, it frequently doesn’t work; but when it does, it’s grand.

Princess Mononoke is an epic adventure -- a rare genre these days. It is also the story of a journey (both physical and spiritual), a breathtaking action thriller, a romance, and a rumination about coming of age (for both the protagonist and humanity as a whole). Oh yes, it also happens to be animated.

The film is the labor of love of Hayao Miyazaki, who is frequently called “the Japanese Walt Disney” -- unfairly to him, I think, since Miyazaki’s artistic vision is much more original and exciting. For the last twenty years, his animation outfit Studio Ghibli produced around a dozen films, targeted mostly at adults and children alike (although something like My Neighbor Totoro is much more kid friendly than, say, adolescent-targeted Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds). Princess Mononoke, though, is an exception: it is squarely intended for grown-ups, with its frequent scenes of rather realistic violence.

Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) fights an enraged monster and wins -- but not before contracting the monster’s peculiar illness. Now, he has to travel to where his adversary came from, hoping to find the cause of and the antidote to his malaise. There he finds a human settlement, led by iron-willed Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who is waging a take-no-prisoners war on the encroaching forest. On the side of the forest, there are giant wild boars, wolves, and a mysterious woman, San (Claire Danes), the Princess Mononoke of the title.

This is merely to scratch the surface of the narrative. Conflict being the heart of every good story, there’s enough story material here for a dozen films. The war between the city and the forest is just one of the conflicts; there are internal struggles in both camps, and Miyazaki effortlessly makes quite a few salient points about the roles of men and women in society, about violence being an inseparable part of nature (eating the opponent seems to be the preferred way of resolving an argument in the animal world), etc.

All of this is crammed into two hours and thirteen minutes of running time, and it frequently feels like too much. Princess Mononoke is clearly a work of an auteur, which brings both good and bad things. It’s good when we are treated to a dramatically complex vision; it’s not so good when the complexity starts to feel like overindulgence. There’s so much going on in the story that once in a while it seems downright messy.

When it’s not messy, it’s breathtaking. The opening fight, the first wolf attack, the journey through a forest filled with spectral spirits, and more -- you won’t see visuals like this anywhere else. The sheer complexity of some scenes is staggering, too; even more so if you consider that almost all of Princess Mononoke was hand-drawn, with Miyazaki himself contributing to just about every frame.

The English version is a good representation of the original film. The dialogue, which was clichÉd in the original, remains clichÉd here. The voice acting is mediocre: while Crudup and Driver are excellent, both Danes and Billy Bob Thornton sound flat. On the other hand, the translation makes the story much clearer, by carefully transposing Japanese mythology into English terms (I have seen the original version with almost literal subtitles, and it was on the verge of being confusing). I’m not quite sure, though, why did they decided to translate only half of the title: The Monster Princess sounds better to me.

Last twenty minutes totally refuse to work, by the way, when Princess Mononoke starts borrowing from not-too-original ideas of such films like Akira: maybe it’s just because I’m not really a fan of action climaxes that involve huge protoplasmic monsters. Still, when it reuses other films’ ideas (there are also elements that are borrowed from The Jungle Book and Tarzan), the total is quite unlike anything you can see anywhere else.

It also has the best kiss scene this year, which manages to be both disturbing and touching -- pretty much like the film itself.