After striking out in its attempt to foist an English-dubbed version of “Life Is Beautiful” on the American public, Miramax will find a friendlier welcome for its re-voiced “Princess Mononoke.” Hayao Miyazaki’s exceedingly imaginative, beautifully realized animated epic adventure has been adapted into English with tact and talent, which at least makes the film theoretically accessible to U.S. audiences in a way that it never would have been in its original Japanese.
Nevertheless, it will take all of Miramax’s legendary marketing prowess to secure sure footing anywhere beyond the specialized circuit, as the PG-13 film, while mainstream in its appeal, is too violent and, at 133 minutes, too long for small fry, and departs from the anthropomorphic and musical Disney conventions in so many creative, exciting ways.
The first film from any source to gross more than $150 million at the domestic Japanese box office (“Titanic” was the second), this 1997 production from Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli was reviewed by Variety in its original version on Feb. 2, 1998, on the eve of its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. That review praised “Mononoke” as “a rich cartoon fable of bygone gods locking horns with man and with industry, which threatens to unbalance the forces of nature. Though set in the 14th century, its ecological bias and feminist slant provide a modern resonance.”
Miramax acquired the picture and initially planned to release it in the summer of 1998. Delay of nearly a year and a half was occasioned by the decision to have DC Comics writer Neil Gaiman prep an English-language script to be performed by an array of name thesps.
Some may regret the loss of the fey, more childlike quality of the original voicings, which were in line with general Japanese practice. But the fact remains that dubbing, while robbing any film of its intrinsic aural personality, does much less egregious damage to an animated film than it does to a live-action piece. So it’s relatively easy, even for those who object to dubbing on general principle, to put aside any qualms and embrace “Princess Mononoke” for what it is, a savage and beautiful episode in the ongoing battle between man and nature.
Coming in the wake of the summer’s domination by “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” “Princess Mononoke” demonstrates that George Lucas has something to learn from Miyazaki about the graceful and organic use of myths and legends; set during the tumultuous Muromachi era (1392-1573) on the cusp of the Iron Age, the story deftly makes use of ecological and technological themes and evokes a period of rapid change to connect with contempo sensibilities.
Also gratifying is the way good and evil are not placed in simplistic opposition, but are intriguingly and realistically parceled out among virtually all the characters, human and animal.
Billy Crudup does a necessarily straightforward but sound job as the young prince Ashitaka, who, after being infected by a demon boar, is forced to journey west from his remote village to seek the slightest hope of relief. His eventful journey is marked by an encounter with a sly warrior monk, a character that gives Billy Bob Thornton ample opportunity to steal the show, which he does with enormously droll line readings.
Among the women, Minnie Driver strikes a fine balance between imperiousness and vulnerability as the industrial titan Lady Eboshi, who brings firearms to the island; Jada Pinkett Smith romps through as a raucous worker, and Gillian Anderson lends a potent emotional dimension to the role of the thoughtful wolf-mother of the title character, a feral girl who is given an edge of fierce over-excitability by Claire Danes.
Pic’s running time is unchanged from the original version.