Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 2nd 2010
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Blu-ray Part 2
Fuhrer King Bradley gets personally involved in dealing with Greed and his chimera soldiers, leading to a quick and messy solution which also results in Al regaining his memories from the time of the alchemical accident. In the wake of that incident, visitors from the distant eastern land of Xing arrive on the scene, one a prince (Lin) with his accompanying duo of warriors and the other a girl (May) with her accompanying mini-panda. Both have an interest in learning the secret of immortality to further their respective clans' statuses in an upcoming bid to succeed the dying Xing Emperor and both bring with them the Eastern traditions of alcehestry (a variation of alchemy focused on medical arts), so both hook up with prominent Amestrian players – the former with Ed and Al, the latter with Scar. All get caught up in the ongoing schemes of the homunculi and their Father, although both Ed and Colonel Mustang bring their own schemes into play focused on drawing out the homunculi, learning the truth about a former comrade's death, and learning just how far up the chain of command the influence of the homunculi goes. Amidst the battles, subterfuge, and occasional foolishness, a loyal soldier gets made a scapegoat, Winry gets to confront the man who killed her parents, someone loses an arm, others lose their lives, and Ed gets to confront Hohenheim, his father. A few people get eaten, too (and not always intentionally) and someone other than Gluttony eats a shoe.
In wrapping up the affair with Greed and his chimera soldiers, episode 14 also marks the end of Brotherhood's quick replay through events covered in some form in the first TV series. With its closing scenes it heads off in a completely new direction, a move only further reaffirmed in episode 15 with the introduction of prominent characters who never appeared in the original series: the Xingese prince Lin (with servants Lan Fan and Fu) and princess May (with panda Shou Mei – actually they appeared briefly in an earlier episode, but this is their formal introduction). This expansion of the core cast provides ample additional opportunities for gags and slick action scenes and adds another cute girl into the mix (Lan Fan is quite the looker when not shrouded in ninja gear), but just as importantly, it also expands a setting that was originally relatively limited for as worldly as its story was. A different culture taking an entirely different mindset to alchemy is a quite sensible and intriguing development, one not explored at all by the original series, but as of the end of episode 26 it has been treated more as a curiosity than an element of major importance to the ongoing plot. More significant is the presence of Father, the mastermind behind the homunculi in this version of the story; he appeared very briefly in earlier episodes but has broader involvement here. The addition of the backstory involving the legendary city of Xerxes also adds a new wrinkle to the overall story, essentially replacing the role served by the underground city in Conqueror of Shamballa.
Not all of the new direction involves new characters and story elements. Barry the Chopper, who was arguably the most colorful of the antagonists in the original series, gets a substantially expanded role as he works with the good guys, while the character who was the homunculus Pride in the first series becomes Wrath in this one, the barely-seen Sloth is entirely different, and the heard-but-not-seen Pride also seems to have an entirely different identity. Some of the prominent subordinate soldiers get caught up in much messier complications and Scar's backstory is expanded, including connecting him to an event portrayed in the first series that previously did not explicitly involve him. Unfortunately, though, those expansions fail to make Scar a more interesting character. The same cannot be said of King Bradley, who gets some sharp new action sequences and background development which fleshes him out better. Winry gets some new scenes, too, although only one of them has more than a negligible impact. (That one scene is arguably the strongest dramatic moment in the series to date, however.)
Freed of the constraints of having to paraphrase big chunks of the original series, this new material progresses smoothly and at a brisk pace, creating a very fluid and dynamic story in which multiple things are always going on at the same time. Though these episodes still retain the full frequency of (supposedly) humorous asides, they have little downtime; nearly everything that happens feels like it fits into the bigger picture, and the episode content rarely wastes time on needless distractions. Yes, there are flashback scenes, but unlike the producers of Naruto and Bleach, the producers of this one actually understand how to use such scenes without bogging down the story with them. The producers never forget through this run that this is, at heart, an action-based shonen action series, either, as it provides plenty enough spectacular action sequences, with plenty enough variety, to satisfy any action junkie. Those who like their graphic content will not be disappointed, either, as plenty of bloodletting can be found here and some scenes (especially the death scene of one of the homunculi) border on gruesome. Plot developments over the course of this block make it clear that, for all that has happened so far, these are just the first stages of a much longer story, and based on what is going on at the end of this set, it should continue to be an interesting one for quite some time.
Most would say that the visuals are an upgrade from the first series, and indeed these episodes have many especially sharp moments; Envy's true form is quite the impressive monster, battle scenes are typically visual spectacles, and flashback scenes use some neat coloring effects which focus on the eye colors of involved characters. New additions to the cast vary between respectable designs and semi-caricature. On the downside, flaws in the integration between character animation and background art are commonly noticeable (at least on Blu-Ray, anyway) and silly moments sometimes go too far into superderformed caricature. The animation shines in the fight scenes but it is more ordinary elsewhere.
Although the first TV series was no slouch in the music department, Brotherhood's musical score may be even better. Directed by Akira Senju, the same man who turned in such a wonderful effort on Red Garden, it delivers a rich, deep, and effective sound clearly made with advanced digital stereo equipment in mind. It is heavy, thrilling, creepy, or silly as needed, and unlike many other anime scores it knows how to be dramatic and full-bodied while stopping just shy of going overboard. Its original opener and closer remain through episode 14 before being replaced by “Hologram” and “Let It Out” respectively in episode 15; the former is a decent number which is a straight-up replacement for the first opener, while the latter is a more adult contemporary-styled number whose tone and lyrics serve as such a perfect round-out for many of the episodes that it stands among the year's best closers.
Funimation's English dub for the original series was a strong one, and the vast majority of the original cast reprises their roles here. Maxey Whitehead is a good-as-could-be-hoped-for replacement for the aged-out Aaron Dismuke; she has slipped into the voice and role well by this point, shaking off the tentativeness heard in the earliest episodes. Contrarily, J. Michael Tatum is an adequate but far less impressive replacement for Dameon Clarke as Scar. Perhaps the best performance in this run belongs to Jerry Jewel for his nigh-unrecognizable, gleefully twisted take on Barry the Chopper, but many other performers shine, too, including the vocally-flexible Chris Cason as Gluttony and especially Ed Blaylock as King Bradley, a role in which he skillfully embodies a sense of his real identity's name without ever making him sound crazed or evil. Personal preference may still reign in the key roles, but the English performances and minor script adjustments lose nothing in comparison to the original Japanese dub.
Funimation's Blu-Ray transfer, which is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec, looks decent but unimpressive as such transfers go, especially considering how recent the animation is. It excels most in its sharp coloring but suffers from some of the same minor visual flaws that the first set had, although only those with top-grade equipment and picky eyes are likely to notice. The presentation makes very good use of lossless audio tracks, especially in the English dubbed version; you'll want a good stereo system to fully appreciate this one. On the downside, a viewer can only switch between audio tracks via the main menu and the Japanese dub seems to be hard-subbed – both major annoyances for those who wish to flip back and forth between dubs or watch the English dub with subtitles on. (Thankfully, this has not been a common practice with Funi Blu-Ray releases beyond this series.) On-disk Extras include clean opener and closer for the new set and a pair of audio commentaries for the English dub, both featuring line producer Mike “Havoc” McFarland; episode 14's also features Vic Mignogna and Chris “Greed” Patton, while episode 23's features Monica “May” Rial, Trish “Lan Fan” Nishamura, and Todd “Ling” Haberkorn. The latter is, naturally, a little sillier (Monica is involved, after all), but both mostly stay on-topic.
The big question that still remains is whether or not this new version of Fullmetal Alchemist, given that it has now shown some new content, is clearly better than the original. The answer should be irrelevant; why don't fans just enjoy the fact that they get to see a whole bunch more fresh FMA content and leave it at that? Does it really need to matter that this version sticks with the original manga, while the original veered off on its own? Unfortunately that does matter to a significant chunk of fandom, so let's look at the two. Brotherhood is unquestionably an even flashier and more graphic show than the original and tells a grander and broader story with upgraded sound and animation. Its emphasis is more firmly on the action and graphic content, however, at the expense of the philosophizing done in the original. The recurring underlying theme about how power should walk hand-in-hand with responsibility – and how abuse and calamity happen when it doesn't – that was so prominent in the original series is far less in evidence here (at least so far). While this loss of substance has gotten mostly washed over by the hyped-up action, it is still evident and may hurt the series' depth, comparatively speaking, in the long run. Taking the silly asides to greater extremes is not necessarily a Good Thing, either, unless the viewer is already a fan of that style of humor in the manga. Overall, this second series has proven quite good and entertaining so far, but claiming that it blows the first series out of the water is an exercise in hyperbole.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Superb musical score, good English dub, great action sequences, new content.
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