The first live-action adaptation of the phenomenally popular Japanese manga created by female author Hiromu Arakawa proves to be a mixed bag of eye-catching visuals and uneven storytelling — rushed and choppy at times, and draggy and repetitive at others. Set in a fascinating early 20th-century alternate world in which two young brothers, both experts in the magical art of transmutation, attempt to rectify a calamitous experiment they carried out as children, “Fullmetal Alchemist” will initially attract huge local audiences when released on Dec. 1 but is unlikely to win viewers not already familiar with the source material or its numerous TV, video game and animated feature incarnations. U.S. release details are pending.
Directed and co-written by Fumihiko Sori (who helmed 2008’s feature “Ichi,” as well as video game adaptation “Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker”), the film opens with a prologue showing blond-haired brothers Ed and Al Elric as budding young practitioners of alchemy, a pursuit that’s considered normal and career-worthy in this particular universe, which just so happens to look a lot like Italy. When their mother drops dead without explanation, the lads attempt to bring her back to life, with disastrous results.
Though not fully explained until much later, Ed and Al have violated laws forbidding human transmutation. The cost to Ed is the loss of a leg, while Al pays with his life — well, the physical part of it anyway. Somehow, Ed manages to strike a deal inside a metaphysical domain known as the Gate of Truth. In exchange for one of his arms, Ed is permitted to keep Al’s soul alive inside a medieval suit of armor handily located at the Elric home.
In the present, Ed (Ryosuke Yamada) is a fully-fledged State Alchemist with a prosthetic arm and leg, while Al (voiced by Atomu Mizuishi) stomps around in his hulking metal skin. In a terrific action sequence set in a town square, Ed sees off Father Cornello (Kenjirou Ishimaru), a nasty clergyman-alchemist who appears to possess the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Ed believes the priceless gem can restore his missing limbs and Al’s body. Unsurprisingly, Cornello’s rock proves to be a fake, prompting an ongoing mission to find the real thing.
Following this spirited set-up, the story never gains much propulsion or emotional weight. Part of the problem lies in the rapid comings and goings of secondary characters, as if they’re names that need to be ticked off a long and daunting list. Best of the thinly drawn lot are handsome military man Col. Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka), Ed’s loyal friend Capt. Hughes (Ryuta Sato, excellent) and Prof. Shou Tucker (Yo Oizumi), an alchemist stuck in a career rut.
In the crucial role of Winry, a childhood friend of the brothers and the mechanic who keeps Ed’s metal limbs functioning properly, actress Tsubasa Honda is poorly served by a screenplay that shows virtually nothing of the character’s girl-power attributes. Instead, she’s a bland sidekick with little to do but remain constantly bubbly.
Also found wanting are Ed’s main enemies, a trio of snarling homunculi who look like members of a 1980s Goth rock band and answer to the names of Lust (Yasuko Matsuyuki), Envy (Kanata Hongo) and Gluttony (Shinji Uchiyama). Their motives are hazy at best, and they’re forever showing up with dialogue that’s not much different from what they’ve said before.
But the film’s greatest weakness is failing to adequately transmit the huge guilt Ed feels for having brought about his younger brother’s fate. This fundamental emotional element doesn’t receive proper attention until the story’s in full stride and then fails to resonate under the weight of uninspired dialogue and unconvincing delivery by Yamada. A notable exception is a fistfight between the duo in which Reiji Kitasato’s stirring music expresses so much of what’s been missing in words.
Production design and costumes are on the money. Visual effects are generally very good, with a late sequence featuring millions of marauding homunculi being the standout. All other technical work is solid.