Reviewby Justin Sevakis, Nov 16th 2009
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't finished the TV series, some things in this section are spoilers. Skip down to the review section.
Two years after the last episode of the TV series, Edward Eleric is still trapped in the "real" world; specifically post-WWI Germany. After his father's disappearance, he's taken up residence with his Bizarro-world brother Alphonse (who's now a late teenager and quite a bit taller than him). Witnessing the racism that lead to the rise of the Nazi party, the two also take in a gypsy named Noah, who happens to be clairvoyant. Ed is unsure if his presence in the real world means his real brother Al is alive or dead.
Meanwhile, the real Al is back in Amestris, with his body fully restored but a big 4-year gap in his memory (the time when he inhabited the suit of armor). He's training relentlessly to try to open the door of truth, so that he may find his long lost brother. Unfortunately, on the other side, Bizarro-Al is using his engineering smarts to help a secret society of Nazi sympathizers known as the Thule Society to do the same thing. Unaware of what's really on the other side, they seek a utopia that might bring their beloved fürher even more power.
It's important to approach art with an open mind, but sometimes that's impossible. One of those times is when it's an anime that's meant as a direct continuation, not even a reboot, of an existing series. In the case of the Fullmetal Alchemist movie, the series it follows is one of the best anime series of the last decade, a tour-de-force with memorable characters, deep symbolism, and a truly heartbreaking storyline told in a way only possible over several seasons of broadcast. It feels almost unfair to admit that the movie is very clearly a lesser work.
But a lesser work it most certainly is. Whereas the TV series had the complicated foils of the Homunculi (literally the embodiments of human failures) and Scar (himself not only sympathetic, but a close examination of how world events shape violent extremism), in Conqueror of Shamballa we're left with villains who are comparatively trite and two-dimensional. They're after power, they cackle at how evil they are, and if they weren't aligned with the Nazi party in 1920s Germany, they could easily pass as Disney villains. Similarly lacking are some of the issues faced by our heroes -- one new cast member in particular is dying of the great plague of cinema, the mysterious and unexplained Coughing-Up-Blood Disease.
None of this is enough to make Conqueror of Shamballa a bad film. In fact, the core element of what made Fullmetal Alchemist so compelling, the relationship of the two brothers, is the film's centerpiece. So intense is the bond between them that all of the broader world issues seem like window dressing. The TV series ended with Ed and Al in different worlds, and with Al having no memory of the time they spent together traveling the world. It's a deeply unsatisfying ending; the brothers should be together, their hard-won memories intact, and the film is essentially a slightly meandering means to that end. It's important not just because it would make a good movie, it's important because it makes the TV series even more worthwhile.
If the film isn't as good as it could be, one reason is that it simply tries to do too much. According to the supplemental material, screenwriter Sho Aikawa was a little too excited about the project. (His first draft was over 180 pages, which translates to about 3 hours of screen time.) A lot of editing was required, but the scope of what it still attempts to do is still mind boggling. Nearly every character from the show is given at least a cameo; the cast members that that died in the series make appearances in the Real world as their alternate-dimension doppelgangers, and a good number of them are given something important to do. Although it's appreciated, the weight of all these characters simply overloads the narrative, and at times, hijacks it. The excellent animation staff at Bones, drunk on the freedom and budget allowed by a feature film, linger on exquisitely-drawn scenes of dancing and other fun visuals, but the crowded narrative could have really made better use of that financial and creative freedom.
But though these issues do add up, they are quibbles. The good news, and really the only news, is that we get to see our friends Ed and Al again, that their deeply dissatisfying separation from the end of the series is addressed, and that the other characters we know and love, from Winry to Col. Roy Mustang, reappear. It's just like old times, and those old times were good enough that most viewers will put up with just about anything to relive them. Even a film-geek self-insertion fanfiction-esque depiction of Fritz Lang.
Yeah, Fritz Lang, silent movie director (known by most for Metropolis and M). What the hell.
The English-language version of Fullmetal Alchemist has always been stellar. Indeed, the series made minor celebrities of its cast, including Vic Mignona as Edward, and a then-barely prepubescent Aaron Dismuke as Alphonse. While Mignona was strong throughout, Dismuke gives the performance of his career as Alphonse. The rest of the TV series cast also remains unchanged. Fans of the Japanese will find a delightful performance by Romi Paku and Rie Kugimiya, though with Ed approaching his twenties in this film one wonders of Paku's voice is still appropriate.
Funimation has recently spiffed up the film for Blu-ray release. Videophiles will welcome this with open arms; the previous DVD suffered at the hands of a previous administration and looked remarkably terrible for a brand new release. This new disc looks pretty darn good, reproducing subtle textures and boasting Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio for both English and Japanese. It's not perfect; a very slight banding problem rears its ugly head from time to time (this is, sadly, common in Japanese HD masters), but the improvement is so vast over the DVD that only the pickiest of fans will complain. The film has no grain, so this video is clearly sourced straight from the digital animation output. All of the special features from the two-disc limited edition of the DVD, including the Japanese roundtable discussion, the making-of documentary, and the various commentary tracks (all of which are surprisingly entertaining -- even the American voice actor one!) in standard-definition round out the disc. (The special features are not upscaled, but they still look quite a bit better than the DVD did.)
Fullmetal Alchemist is a series for the ages, and even if this part of it doesn't quite live up to its earlier incarnation, it's well worth watching and definitely worth owning. Fans will deeply appreciate this better-looking re-release. Maybe someday the series itself will be so lucky.
Overall : B
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Stunning animation, satisfying ending, and it's so good to see these guys again
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