Haymitch Abernathy: You really wanna know how to stay alive? You get people to like you. Oh! Not what you were expecting. Well, when you're in the middle of the games, and you're starving or freezing, some water, a knife or even some matches can mean the difference between life and death. And those things only come from sponsors, and to get sponsors, you have to make people like you. And right now, sweetheart, you're not off to a real good start.
Uncle Ben: If anyone's destined for greatness, it's you son. You owe the world your gifts. You just have to figure out how to use them. And know that wherever they take you, we'll always be here. So come on home Peter. You're my hero, and I love you.
Princess Mononoke marked the tipping point in my Miyazaki exploration. After seeing, and essentially loathing Spirited Away, I was willing to give Studio Ghibli one more shot. If Princess Mononoke failed to impress me, I was more than prepared to stop wasting my time on these movies. So I started watching the movie with low expectations, feeling rather enthusiastic about possibly hating it. But I can tell you with 100% honesty that I was taken aback by this film. Not only is it an obvious improvement on Spirited Away, but it is also a bona fide work of art. And not just a work of art in the visuals department (like Spirited Away), Princess Mononoke is beautiful in more ways than one.
In a fight to defending his village from a wild boar demon, Prince Ashitaka is infected by a curse in his right arm. This curse will eventually kill him, but it also gives him a powerful ability to fight. Ashitaka's only hope for survival is to travel to the western lands and seek the healing power of the Forest Spirit. But the land of the Forrest Spirit is in turmoil. Lady Iboshi, ruler of Iron Town, is planning on killing the Forest Spirit, and eventually taking over the untamed land. It's up the Ashitaka to bring both the humans and the forest into harmony.
I have two main issues with this movie, and I'll start with the only one directly related to the film's director. For the first two acts of this movie, I was delighted in every way. The animation was as beautiful as expected (more on that later), the characters were much better than any in Spirited Away, the action was very cool, and the story was moving along nicely. But in the third act, the story begins to fall under its own wait. I loved it all until the giant Forest Spirit starts strutting around, looking for his head. The movie becomes pretty goofy when this happens, which is a shame, because the rest of the film is completely credible. It's anticlimactic, and that made me quite sad.
One potential problem with the movie is its message. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of movies with ham-fisted environmental messages. This is the main reason why I strongly dislike Avatar. There are a host of other things that will ruin us long before our planet gives out. And yet, while Princess Mononoke does have your stereotypical "save the trees" message, I actually didn't mind it in this case. In fact, I found this movie's depiction of nature to be stunningly gorgeous! When the forest is replenished at the end of the movie, I was actually floored with how spectacular it all was. This is the first movie I've seen that really handles the environmental message tastefully, in a way that I actually liked. Sure the movie delves into some pretty obvious Pantheism at the end, but in this case, I'll be forgiving.
Big problem number two has nothing to do with Miyazaki. It rests in the English dub. For some characters, it's pretty awful; the most obvious case being Billy Bob Thornton playing a money-hungry monk ... because nothing screams 'chunky Asian monk' like Thornton's Southern twang. There are some other minor characters that are voiced in really annoying, juvenile, and Americanized fashion. Spirited Away wasn't the better movie in any other way, but at least it matched it's visuals with appropriate voices.
And speaking of those visuals, they are astounding! Every tree, animal, pool, and character is lovingly created by talented animators. Miyazaki's lively imagination is once again on full display here. I much preferred the visual style of this movie over Spirited Away. There's also a lot of action in this movie, and it proves to be rousing right from the get go! PG-13 rated animated movies are always exciting to see and Princess Mononoke definitely earns the rating. Not only is the violence unlike anything you'll see in a mainstream American animated picture, but the demon characters provide for some solid PG-13 rated visuals. The only negative I can find in the visuals is the main characters' design. Two movies in, and I find Miyazaki's human character design to be incredibly bland. But all in all, I adored the visual approach of this movie!
The characters are yet another massive step up from Spirited Away. Our protagonist, Ashitaka, is downright awesome! With the curse slowly spreading past his arm, our hero has the incentive of a ticking clock. He only has so much time left before the curse kills him, so he has strong motivation throughout. I cared deeply about Ashitaka's journey throughout the entire two plus hour run time. He puts Spirited Away's Chihiro to shame!
San, a god of the forest who was adopted by wolves, heads up the supporting characters. She is a perfectly adequate character, but like I said earlier, she is miscast in the English dub. Claire Danes voice is a little too flinty, too shrill for the part. It simply does not fit the character. The rest of the supporting cast is populated by a cast of magical characters. There's the antagonist, Lady Iboshi. Much to my surprise and delight, she is not depicted as simply "the villain!" For that matter, the movie doesn't really paint anything as completely black and white ... a tough chore when you're dealing with environmental issues. Lady Iboshi certainly isn't Stephan Lang from Avatar, and I commend the movie for that. Also of note are the talking animals of the story. It's always humored my how many animated movies feature talking animals, but I liked almost all of the animal characters in this movie.
Joe Hisaishi's score to Spirited Away was one of the few highlights in that slog of a movie. Now, it's hard to be a highlight in a movie that shines as brightly as Princess Mononoke, but Hisaishi manages to do it! His score is simply breathtaking at every turn! Like Spirited Away, there is a superb piano theme for this movie. It gives the story a whole lot of extra heart whenever it plays. There is a more heroic theme that is for Ashitaka, I assume. It's heard predominately near the beginning of the movie, especially in the scene where Ashitaka rides out of his village. It too is simply magnificent! The score, like the movie, is a touching and beautiful work of art.
Needless to reiterate, but I'll say it yet again, Princess Mononoke tramples all over Spirited Away. If the rest of Miyazaki's body of work is as remarkable as Princess Mononoke, then I'm in for plenty of marvelous movie experiences! Then again, if the rest of Miyazaki's body of work is as lackluster as Spirited Away, then I might have to remember Princess Mononoke is a shining beacon of promise in an overrated filmmaker's career. But I have the strong feeling that most of Miyazaki's movies will be as stunning as Princess Mononoke ... or else why would he be so highly regarded? I can't wait for time to tell! As for this movie, other than a few nagging issues, it is a piece of anime filmmaking that is as beautiful as it is exciting, as thought-provoking as it is edgy, and as worthy as it is admired!
"You cannot change fate. However, you can rise to meet it, if you so choose." 8.5/10