MOVIE REVIEW: "Princess Mononoke"
3 and one-half stars
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
The technical aspects of "Princess Mononoke" don't explain why this animated feature dazzles. Yes, it's well-drawn and fluid, perhaps not as bold and three-dimensional as Disney movies yet more detailed in background textures and subtle in its use of watercolors.
But the triumph lies in the whole more than the parts; Japanese anime veteran Hayao Miyazaki has created a world simply unlike any you've seen, a lush, ancient forestland where man and nature struggle amid terrifying beasts, noble creatures and sprightly forest spirits. As you watch the carefully executed English-language version of this 1997 Japanese film sensation, you're always aware that you're experiencing one man's unique vision rather than a lavish cartoon assembled by committee to please anyone 5 years old and up.
The PG-13 rating on "Princess Mononoke" is to be taken seriously. At times the movie is startling in its beauty; at others it unfolds like a psychedelic nightmare. You know you're not in Disneyland
from the start, as an isolated village finds itself in the path of a raging demon that looks like a giant mass of bloody, writhing worms.
The young warrior Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) vanquishes this beast, which, upon dying, turns out to be a huge boar that had been transformed into a wormy vessel of hate after being shot in another land. In killing the demon, Ashitaka is wounded in his arm, and a village medium tells him the poisonous scar that grows there eventually will take his life.
So he is charged with a last redemptive mission: Head to the West and with "clear eyes" find the root of the hatred that created the demon and his curse.
In the basic sense, "Princess Mononoke" is an ecology fable that illustrates the destructiveness of people's desire to conquer nature for their own uses. Yet the world presented by Miyazaki isn't one ruled by simple morals or easy-to-peg heroes and villains.
After traveling through lands where samurai attack villagers" and get limbs and heads blown off by Ashitaka's newly powerful arrows" Ashitaka arrives at the mountainous land of the Tatara clan, where the proud Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) oversees an iron works. Lady Eboshi wants to conquer the animal gods that protect the mountains and forests so her clan's work can continue, as it must for the people to survive.
Ashitaka soon encounters Moro (Gillian Anderson), an imposing wolf god, and San, the Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes), the human girl whom Moro has raised as one of her own. San is a tough cookie; we first see her removing a bloody bullet from Moro with her teeth. Also mixed up in the warfare are Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), a wandering monk whose motives are more mercenary than missionary, and ultimately the Great God of the Forest, a massive figure that gives power to the forest gods.
Although the movie includes moments of comic relief, it's a mostly sombre affair. The animals are noble and fierce rather than cute and cuddly, and the same goes for San, who is disgusted by the idea of being human.
Death looms constantly, particularly over Ashitaka with his grotesque, ever-growing scar. Yet there's also much magic in those lands, most charmingly embodied by tree spirits called Kodamas, who look like little marshmallow people and make clicking noises when they tilt their heads.
The battling among the various factions becomes complicated, and the action occasionally bogs down over the movie's 2\-hour length. Yet rarely does any film, animated or otherwise, immerse you in such a vivid landscape and engage your senses so strongly. The climax is truly spectacular and scary, and though the human characters look like they escaped from "Speed Racer," their
emotional resolutions have the kind of nuance you'd expect from a Kurosawa film.
"Princess Mononoke" doesn't ultimately assert the superiority of nature over humans as much as it lays out the importance and difficulty of their co-existing harmoniously. Life is a delicate
balancing act, something the creator of this cautionary, wondrous movie knows well.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
English-language adaptation by Neil Gaiman
Music by Joe Hisaishi
Produced by Toshio Suzuki.
A Miramax Films release; opens Friday October 29, 1999 at the McClurg Court Theatre.
Running time: 2:13.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (images of violence and gore)
Jigo/Billy Bob Thornton
Lady Eboshi/Minnie Driver
Gonza/John Di Maggio
Kohroku/John De Mita