Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Princess Mononoke (1997)
Studio Line: Miramax - The Fate Of The World Rests On The Courage Of One Warrior.

Claire Danes (The Mod Squad), Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) and Billy Bob Thornton (Armageddon, Sling Blade) head a cast of hot Hollywood stars who lend their talents to this exquisitely animated, overwhelmingly acclaimed adventure epic! Inflicted with a deadly curse, a young warrior named Ashitaka (Billy Crudup - Without Limits) sets out to the forests of the west in search of the cure that will save his life. Once there, he becomes inextricably entangled in a bitter battle that matches Lady Eboshi (Driver) and a proud clan of humans against the forest's animal gods...who are led by the brave Princess Mononoke (Danes), a young woman raised by wolves! Also starring Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) and Jada Pinkett Smith (Scream 2), this monumental struggle between man and nature will have you transfixed with amazement as stunning artistry blends with epic storytelling to create a uniquely entertaining motion picture!

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Cast: Voices of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Mini Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Jada Pinkett-Smith
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, Japanese & French DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 25 chapters; rated PG-13; 134 min.; $32.99; street date 12/19/00.
Supplements: Featurette; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Joe Hisaishi

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/D

Although I’m not a fan of anime, I’ve been hearing for months and months about how terrific Princess Mononoke is. Here’s a sampling of the comments I’ve read: it’s been called a “towering achievement” and “one of the best films of the 1990s”. One writer referred to it as “action packed, philosophically and emotionally deep” and “one of the greatest films put out in the last decade.”

It’s time for me to put on some flame-resistant garb because I have to go against this tide of overwhelming praise. I looked forward to seeing Princess Mononoke but found the result less than scintillating. While I thought the film was entertaining and generally well-executed, in no way do I believe it deserves the amazing press it’s received.

Basically my disagreements about PM fell into a few categories. First I considered the storyline. I saw nothing deep about this plot. In fact, I felt the tale featured an insanely obvious and tired ecological message. We have nature and man at odds, and things are going down the crapper. You don’t suppose that both sides will need to learn to get along together for all to be happy? Who wrote this script - Rodney King?

There’s a lot of discuss of the depth to the characters. Many fans praise the lack of truly evil or good characters; everyone’s flawed in some way and “human”. Personally, I’m not sure I agree with this. Lady Eboshi seemed like a fairly generic villain to me, and San - who’s also the title character - was pretty virtuous, though perhaps her Riot Grrrl attitude is supposed to add complexity to her personality. All I know is that I found none of the participants to be especially vivid, lively or intriguing.

Next, I remain confused of all the praise for the film’s “amazing” animation. While I found much of the art in PM to indeed appear attractive, the animation itself usually looked stiff and unconvincing. Some of the movement came across as acceptably life-like, but these instances were the exceptions. Most of the action seemed stilted and didn’t flow smoothly. Dialogue features the usual “flapping mouth” syndrome typical of Japanese animation. Although I don’t much care for the look of this form of animation, I won’t fault the quality of the artwork itself, which seemed lush and well-rendered. Unfortunately, the characters tend to move poorly, which made it more difficult to get into the story.

After I initially watched the film, I became so perplexed by all of the plaudits that I did something unprecedented for me: I viewed Princess Mononoke again. When I review DVDs, I go with my first opinions of the films because it’s unlikely my thoughts will change upon further examination. Frankly, I also don’t have the time to take in each DVD about which I write multiple times. However, in the case of PM, I thought I should give it another shot because of the radical gap between my thoughts and the common consensus.

Nothing changed. As I watched PM a second time, I still couldn’t fathom why the film received so much praise. Without question, it’s a fairly compelling movie, and it offered a generally interesting and entertaining experience. However, I felt it had little that made it stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps I’d need to be more familiar with anime to understand why PM is so amazing. Maybe it comes out as something remarkable compared to the other films in that genre. However, I don’t have that background, so I can’t tell if it’s better or worse than other pieces of Japanese animation. My experience is limited to the Pokemon movies, and although PM is a much better-executed piece of material, I honestly don’t think it showed much greater depth or dramatic flair than something like Pokemon: The First Movie. Heck, Miramax even use a tag line that’s very close to the one utilized for Pokemon the Movie 2000. For PM, we’re told that “the fate of the world rests on the courage of one warrior”, whereas P2K touted that “one person can make all the difference”.

No, I’m not accusing PM of stealing from Pokemon; if anything, it’s likely that any thievery happened in the opposite direction. However, I didn’t see much greater emotional range to the flat and predictable world of Princess Mononoke either. It’s just more of the old “man and nature need to learn to get along to survive” eco-babble and it offers virtually nothing new.

I know that many, many people simply adore Princess Mononoke and they think it’s one of the great films of all-time. I respect those opinions and have no problem with anyone who feels that way. However, I didn’t see it. I thought the movie was awkwardly-animated and that it lacked any particular depth or range. It’s a decent animated flick but not anything special.

The DVD:

Princess Mononoke appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the movie generally presented a solid picture, a few concerns kept it from achieving greatness.

Sharpness usually looked acceptably crisp and well-defined. However, a fair number of shots introduced some softness. These problems mainly appeared during wider shots, and through my limited experience with anime, I’m starting to wonder if this form of fuzziness is typical of the genre; the Pokemon movies suffered from the same lack of detail in particular scenes. In any case, PM mostly was detailed and nicely sharp. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no significant problems, and I also detected few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV.

Print flaws appeared minor but seemed more prevalent than I’d expect. Light grain cropped up on occasion, and I also noticed periodic bursts of grit. More significant defects such as scratches, hairs, blotches or tears were absent. While the problems were modest, they still made the image less than ideal.

Colors looked quite good throughout the film. At virtually all times the hues came across as rich and vivid, without any signs of bleeding or noise. PM used a varied palette and the DVD showed this off to nice advantage. For the most part, black levels also seemed deep and dense, but sometimes shadow detail looked slightly weak. A number of low-light situations appeared more difficult to discern than I’d expect. This wasn’t a major problem, but it was one of a few small concerns that ultimately resulted in my “B” grade for the picture of Princess Mononoke.

I thought the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seemed more consistent than the image but it also wasn’t terrific. However, the audio appeared very strong as a whole. I screened both the original Japanese version and the dubbed English mix and found them to sound nearly identical. While the Japanese track was significantly louder than the English one, when volume levels were balanced they seemed very similar. As such, my comments about the audio will apply to both mixes.

PM featured a soundfield that appeared distinctly biased toward the front speakers but the overly impression still came across as fairly well-rounded. I thought the audio often was a little too “speaker specific”; sounds seemed to be placed somewhat too precisely in certain locations, which made any form of blended imaging less convincing. Nonetheless, audio moved well from channel to channel, and the overall impression remained fairly good. The surrounds kicked in music and effects mainly during louder sequences; the rears also provided some general ambiance, but this track stayed largely in the forward spectrum.

Audio quality appeared consistently solid. For both mixes, dialogue came across as distinct and warm with no problems related to edginess or lack of intelligibility. Oddly, I felt that the Japanese speech blended better with the action. Obviously, none of the dialogue was recorded on the set, since none existed, so neither track should sound less natural than the other. Nonetheless, that was the impression I received, though the difference was minor.

Music appeared bright and rich and presented good dynamics, as did the effects. Those aspects of the mix seemed clear and bold and offered no concerns related to distortion. The entire package boasted some good bass; I felt the low end could have been deeper, but this area still seemed pleasing. As a whole, the soundtrack of Princess Mononoke wasn’t anything spectacular but it worked fairly well for the film.

One very cool aspect of the DVD relates to its subtitles. There are two different English options. You can watch the movie with text for the hearing impaired, which basically transcribes the English dub of PM. You can also view the film with subtitles that offer a literal translation of the Japanese dialogue. The two are fairly different, and it’s fun to switch back and forth between them. I really enjoyed and appreciated this option.

Other that these two sets of subtitles, PM skimps on extras. We get the American theatrical trailer and we also find a superficial five minute and 15 second featurette that offers a few film clips and some interviews with the English voice cast and US voice director Jack Fletcher. We hear how great the film is and that’s about it; there’s some insight into the problems that face voice actors but not much as this piece provides little more than the usual promotional fluff.

Few films receive praise as glowing as the raves heaped upon Princess Mononoke. While many will disagree with me, I don’t see the reasons behind these attitudes. The movie was a fairly interesting but unspectacular eco-fantasy that had some good moments but did little to stand out from the crowd. The DVD offers very solid picture and sound but skimps on extras. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Princess Mononoke, I’d recommend it to fans of animation so they can decide for themselves if the fuss was justified. As for already-established Mono-maniacs, the DVD will definitely make you very happy.

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