Think of "Princess Mononoke" as "Fantasia" set on Iwo Jima.
It's beautiful fairy tale full of mythical beasts, beautiful forests, sparking waterfalls, war and slaughter. I liked the red elk the hero rode, and I liked it when he shot an arrow so expertly it beheaded one of his pursuers.
A gigantic Japanese animated feature--"anime" seems to be the term of art--the movie is as spectacular as it is dense and as dense as it is colorful and as colorful as it is meaningless and as meaningless as it is long. And it's very long. In a different age, it would be seen entirely as visual accompaniment for a tour of the universe under the influence of any one of a given number of psychotropic substances. Even without the drugs, you're likely to come out of the experience with a hangover.
For some reason some of our better film scribes seem to have gotten on the Princess's bandwagon, responding perhaps to its sponsorship by a major American company (Miramax) and the dubbing of Japanese voices by American actors like Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. So you will have been hearing that it's quite good. Well, it didn't strike me as nearly as intriguing as "Akira," the underground sensation of several years ago, which lacked those swanky credentials. It was about a gang of delinquents who fought a giant in the future. I think. Anyway, it had lots of cool destruction, machines and guns.
Like "Akira," "Princess Mononoke" feels somewhat odd in its progress. It's not a question so much of plot logic and cause-effect, which is consistent if fanciful, but emphasis. The director Hayao Miyazaki seems uncomfortable with pure aggression and naked hostility; the impulse in the film is toward reconciliation, not conquest, a spirit that feels peculiar in an environment so bloody and violent.
The spirit of reconciliation expresses itself most significantly in "Princess Mononoke" as the mesh of contradictions. Where a Western filmmaker would draw a line between good and evil, then punish one and reward the other (though no telling which), Miyazaki seems unwilling to do so, and even the despoilers of nature--the leprous gunmakers of Iron City, whose sulfurous leakings deaden the lake and whose acrid stench darkens the air--seem pretty mild. Though people are nasty, brutish and short, and, worse, not nice to Mother Nature, none, really, are punished; those who die (there are lots) are incidental to the story, not major parts of it.
This paradox is carried through consistently. Though it is full of beheadings and slaughter and its hero lays waste about him, splattering the landscape in blood and severed heads, it's basically goodhearted, a kind of endorsement of Nature as benevolent and kind. Nature, in fact, is a many-horned herbivore who, when ticked, turns into a giant opaque jelly monster, who must somehow be mollified before she (or it or whatever) lets the forest remain at peace.
In a fairy-tale medieval long ago, Ashitaka, a young prince with a face so bland it belongs in an animated cereal commercial (the voice behind that face belongs to Crudup), saves the village from a mountain demon that turns out to be a giant boar infected with worms, driven mad by a piece of steel in his stomach. Though Ashitaka triumphs, he is mortally infected and reluctantly exiled to find "the source of evil," his only hope.
He wanders (on that gigantic red elk) a few kingdoms over where a war is going on between Nature--more giant boars, led by Princess Mononoke (Danes), who happens to be a wolf girl--and the clan Tatara, led by haughty Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who is sponsoring the iron mining and the gun making. Much bloody fighting ensues, but also much gamboling in mystical forests.
The animation is--well, Japanese. That is to say, it's completely vivid and exquisitely detailed and convincing--almost. Somehow the Japanese haven't quite mastered the one trick remaining in the animation bag, which Disney aced years back, and that's the sense of motion. These creatures are fanciful, even beautiful, but somehow when they move they don't seem fully alive. The best of Disney--say, the great "Bambi"--yields a sinuous luminescence, a sense of muscle and bone moving under supple skin, a majesty. Miyazaki's hordes of animators haven't penetrated beyond the skin; the moving creatures feel inarticulate and jerky, almost weightless, particularly when played against painterly background mattes. They are to Bambi what Godzilla was to the Beast from 20,000 fathoms.
Princess Mononoke (135 minues, at the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle) is rated PG-13 and contains explicit though animated violence, blood, crawly worms and treacly music.
CAPTION: The title character and her steed Moro.