YOU HAVE to love a Japanese animated film in which one of the characters -- a short, cocky fella by the name of Jigo -- sounds a lot like . . . Billy Bob Thornton.
That's right. Ol' "Slingblade" hisself is just one of the American background voices in "Princess Mononoke," director Hayao Miyazaki's epic, which is the only movie (other than "Titanic") to break $150 million at the Japanese box office.
Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who head Miramax Films, have created this English-language version, using the talents of Thornton, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and others for the dubbing.
The effect is unmistakable. The actors give "Princess" unexpectedly powerful dimension. English-language dubbing for most Japanese animation films has always been good, but this particular ensemble boosts the quality even higher. Thornton is particularly effective as a wise, old wayfarer. Driver's regal English accent -- issuing from the lips of one Lady Eboshi -- puts an unusual twist on her character. And, it almost goes without saying for Japanese animation, "Princess Mononoke" does not lack for visual brilliance.
Set in ancient Japan, the story's about the war between civilization and the forces of nature.
The plot begins with Ashitaka (Crudup), who kills a boar-like monster that threatens his village. Unfortunately the animal happens to be a protector-god of a distant forest and Ashitaka is left with a nasty, spreading scar on his arm. He embarks on a mythic quest to rid himself of this curse.
He comes to the mountains of northern Japan where Lady Eboshi leads the Tatara Clan, a tribe of iron forgers that is wreaking havoc on the virgin forests. Nature's only protection from this industrialist is the Great God of the Forest, an amorphous being whose energy fuels various forest gods to fight these human encroachers.
Ashitaka, who is clearly the force of good, finds his allegiances torn between Eboshi's people and the forest gods -- in particular, San, the Princess Mononoke (Danes), a beautiful almost feral woman raised by wolves. With opposition from both sides, Ashitaka tries to find a way for both sides to coexist and for the deteriorating forest to come back to life.
In terms of the animation, the details are remarkable. And there are some amazingly intense and vivid battles between human and forest creatures. The movie's shimmering, eerily realistic depiction of water, alone, rendered me awestruck. It is in such subtle moments -- and there are many of them -- that "Princess Mononoke" earns its points.
"Princess Mononoke" has some shortcomings: a heavy-handed ecological message, a brain-reeling plot line and no squeamishness when it comes to, say, decapitation.
But if animated blood is just so much red ink to you and you can sit through an entire hour of NPR coverage without screaming for air, the violence and the pro-environment sentimentality shouldn't be too problematic. Just sit back (it's more than two hours), count the chopped off heads and appreciate the sheer mastery of anime. This "Princess" is a royal treat.
PRINCESS MONONOKE (PG-13, 135 minutes) -- Contains animated violence and death that's not suitable for young children. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3.