Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 23rd 2006
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie - Conqueror of Shamballa
WARNING: This summary and review contains spoilers for the last few episodes of the Fullmetal Alchemist TV series.
Two years have passed since the end of the TV series. Ed, still trapped in the “real” world, lives with his father and that world's version of Al in 1923 Germany in the days leading up to the infamous Beer Hall Putsch. There he encounters the clairvoyant gypsy Noah and filmmaker Fritz Lang, who happens to be that world's version of Pride. Through association with them he comes into contact with the Thule Society, a secret organization seeking to open a portal to a utopian realm they call Shamballa in a quest for more power for their Fuhrer. Ed soon realizes that Shamballa is actually his home world and tries to put a stop to their scheme.
Meanwhile Al, who still can't remember his time in the armor, has become quite the alchemist in his own right. He has developed a way to combine alchemy with soul transfer to remotely animate and speak through suits of armor, but has been unable to find a way to reach his brother. A fateful encounter with Wrath leads him in the right direction, but will his efforts to try to open a portal to his brother succeed in helping him or only bring more grief to his world?
Meanwhile Roy Mustang is down-and-out, playing the role of a greatly demoted soldier, but a man so determined as him isn't likely to stay that way forever.
The first thing that should be understood about Conqueror of Shamballa is what it's not. It is not a recap or alternate retelling of the TV series, nor is it a stand-alone project, its accompanying booklet's claims to the contrary. Like End of Evangelion or Martian Successor Nadesico: Prince of Darkness, Conqueror of Shamballa is a direct extension of its TV series, one which seeks to resolve plot points left up in the air by the end of the TV series. As such, familiarity with the characters and plot lines, especially those in the last few episodes, is assumed, so viewing the entire FMA TV series prior to watching this movie is very strongly recommended. In fact, if you have not seen the last few TV series episodes yet then you shouldn't be reading any farther in this review.
The movie starts with a six minute opener detailing one of Ed and Al's past exploits, one which looks at the juxtaposition of science and alchemy in Ed and Al's home world compared to the real world. Although it may seem to set the movie up as just more of the same content seen in the series, it's also used to contrast with the later occurrence of the reverse in the real-world setting. That's about as complex as the story ever gets, however, for what follows is a fairly straightforward continuation of the situations set up by the last episode of the TV series.
On the real-world side of the gate Ed gets involved with yet another pretty girl in a platonic manner while fans get to revel in seeing the real-world versions of their FMA favorites; the highlight is probably Maes Hughes' counterpart trying to start up a relationship with his wife's counterpart, but watch closely for many others. Eventually Ed finds out about a secret organization trying to use fanciful extrapolations of technology to open up a gate to Shamballa in a big power grab – and of course that happens to be Armestis, Ed's home world.
Although there's no shortage of action and intrigue, the strength of this side of the story is how well it blends in to real-world events and situations. The Beer Hall Putsch and circumstances leading up to it are pure history, as was Hitler's well-documented fascination with the occult. Karl Haushofer was a real person whose teachings and writings about the Aryan race and geopolitics had a distinct influence on both Hitler and Rudolf Hess. The book of his shown to Ed in one scene really was his, he really was influenced a lot by a trip to Japan, and he was rumored to have been involved with a secret occult community striving to raise Germany to the status of a world power, though how much merit those rumors have is debatable. Erik Jan Hanussen, the guy who tries to buy Noah, and legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang were also real historical figures, and the Hess that kept getting mentioned was, of course, a young Rudolf Hess. Thus the real-world side of the story is as much historical fiction as fantasy.
On the Armestis side, Al has grown more, copied his brother's clothing style, and learned some sharp new tricks while searching for a way to reach his brother. Winry's still pining for Ed, Mustang has gone into self-punishment mode, Armstrong's helping to rebuild Lior in his own way, and most of the rest of the surviving cast members have found their own things to do; expect all sorts of cameos of series faves, including Rose. Not much of consequence happens until Al hooks up with Wrath, descends to the underground city, discovers the mutated Gluttony, and does the whole gate-opening thing, which opens Pandora's Box as well. Then the party really starts as all sorts of badness goes down. Naturally Ed and Al ultimately get reunited and Mustang makes his dramatic return in a cheer-out-loud moment (the big crowd I originally saw the movie with went wild at that point), and naturally there's some heartbreak involved for an important female character as the story rumbles to a conclusion. Whose heart his broken? You'll have to watch to find out.
There's no question that Conqueror of Shamballa delivers on entertainment value, as it has all of the action, flashy magic, comedy, snappy dialogue, drama, and intrigue that made the TV series so great. What's lacking is the series' depth. The explorations of morality and the dark places of the soul, which were so prominent in the series, are mostly lost in the movie, and the historical connections mentioned above, while neat, aren't an adequate qualitative replacement. Use of the gypsies allows for the inclusion of some nice cultural elements, but in the big picture they merely replace the role of the people of Ishbal. For all its gimmicks the writing and plotting just don't feel as sharp as they were for the series, and thus aren't up to the same level. They're still quite good, but not great.
The technical and artistic merits, however, are just as good, and the TV series was no slouch in either. A couple of the new supporting character designs looks unintentionally corny, but most are as sharp as ever, especially Noah. A convincing job has also been done of appropriately aging Ed, Al, and Winry, but the new version of Gluttony is nothing particularly exciting. Background artwork is superb, often some of the sharpest yet seen from Studio Bones. Because a lot of the story takes place in a realm without alchemy there isn't as high a concentration of flashy use of alchemy as one was used to seeing in the series, and though the displays are well-done only one or two moments achieve the knock-your-socks-off impressiveness of moments in the series. CG was used in about a quarter of the shots in the movie, but often it's used effectively enough that it's hard to differentiate it from the surrounding animation. Animation is very good, with the highlight scenes being the CG-animated horde of armor suits Al must contend with in a relatively early scene and a neat dance scene towards the end. It's not a technical masterpiece on the level of an Akira, Ghost in the Shell, or Steamboy, but it still fares quite well.
The musical score, which always was a strong point for the series, reuses common themes from the series but also infuses in several new ones as well, including a couple of peppy gypsy numbers. All of it is very good and effectively-used; the key battle scenes certainly wouldn't have the intensity and urgency they do without such quality work from the Moscow International Symphonic Orchestra. Highlight musical numbers are a pair of songs by L'Arc-en-Ciel made especially for the movie, which serve as opener and closer.
The English dub for Conqueror of Shamballa maintains the same vocal cast used for the series, which had not only one of the best English dubs FUNimation has ever put out but one of the better all-around dubs of any anime series. The movie is no different. Roles, even new ones, are invariably well-cast and well-performed; one would have to look pretty hard to find a legitimate weak link. Those who have only seen the series via Adult Swim broadcast may find the Japanese voices for Ed and Al to sound a little too girly at times, and a lot of the Japanese VAs struggle to correctly pronounce some of the Western-sounding names, especially “Edward Elric” and “Alphonse Elric.” (Normally this wouldn't be worth mentioning, but if sub fans are going to level criticism at English dub performers for mispronouncing Japanese names then it's only fair that seiyuu get similarly criticized for mispronouncing non-Asian names.) The seiyuu for the role of Eckhart also can't hold a candle to Kelly Manison when it comes to maniacal laughing. The English script reinterprets original dialogue as much as following it, but it is smooth and less drastic in its adjustments than most FUNimation titles. Mileage may vary, but this is a really strong dub, one which arguably outdoes the original.
The Extras included with the movie are significant. On-DVD extras include original movie trailers, company trailers, and Production Art and Image Gallery reviews set to music. The feature extra is a 40-minute “Making of” documentary focusing on director Seiji Mizushima looking back at the course of the movie being made. Mizushima is a fun guy to watch in an interview, and while the documentary doesn't go into extensive depth, it does move along at a good enough clip that is should be of interest to any FMA fan. Most interesting is the commentary about how carefully the initial trailers and posters were designed to manipulate initial perceptions of the movie's content.Also included in the DVD case is some nice bonus artwork on the back of the cover and an 18-page Guide Book, which includes character sketches, a four-page look at the series and movie by Japanese anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa, and a collection of Keywords covering various topics in the movie. Despite the occasional gross errors (the grammar is really bad at one point and Rudolf Hess is called “Hoss” instead), these Keywords are quite informative – but watch the movie at least once through before reading them, as they do contain extensive spoilers. A Limited Edition version is also available which has additional extras.
The movie resolves all of the loose ends of the TV series, making it a nice capstone piece for the franchise, although it does create enough of a loose end of its own to leave the door slightly open for a possible future follow-up. Despite a slight drop-off in storytelling quality, it's still everything that fans of the series have eagerly waited for.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Excellent visuals, music, and entertainment value; great English dub.
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