Reviewby Theron Martin,
Edward and Alphonse Elric were promising alchemists from a young age, but then their mother died. Distraught, they decided to break alchemy's ultimate taboo – performing human transformation – in order to bring their mother back from the dead. This was ultimately a disaster, costing Al his body and Ed a leg and arm. Years pass and now Edward is famous as the military's Fullmetal Alchemist, though everyone thinks that his brother Al, whose soul inhabits an empty suit of plate armor, is actually the one with the title (much to Ed's consternation). They pursue a legendary Philosopher's Stone, which they believe can restore their bodies. This will be a more dangerous path than they could have imagined, for powerful immortal beings lurk in the shadows with their own plans for the Stone.
Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the most popular and successful anime/manga franchises of the 2000s, so the only surprise surrounding this live-action adaptation might be that it didn't happen sooner. Perhaps the delay was due to the dramatic recent expansion of live-action anime productions, or perhaps those considering the project were waiting until technology caught up enough to make the special effects feasible. Whatever the case, after being released theatrically in Japan last year, this movie is finally available on Netflix, and it's at least worth checking out for prior fans—and only prior fans.
Because the movie compacts the plot so much, it's not really accessible to franchise newcomers. Many important points are either glossed over or outright ignored, most notably how Winry fits into the picture; the movie only implies that she grew up with the Elrics and works as Ed's mechanic, but that's it. We don't see her actually working on his limbs (or any machine) in the film, and the depth of their connection as family or love interests is left neglected. The movie also entirely glosses over how Ed came to be the youngest State Alchemist, how Maes Hughes and Roy Mustang know each other, and why Maes urges Roy to pursue rapid promotion, though all of those are more forgivable omissions. In other words, the movie does a poor job of establishing its world and characters, which might not bother those familiar with the franchise, but it will leave newcomers scratching their heads.
If franchise familiarity is not a concern, then the movie's story is a fair adaptation given its comparatively short runtime of 134 minutes. It's clearly only the first part of a larger story, but the film traverses a lot of ground by chopping out several minor characters, silly comic relief, and other transitionary scenes. Key moments retained include scenes with Dr. Marcoh, Shou Tucker, and a variation on Father Cornello. The three earliest Homunculi who appear (Lust, Envy, and Gluttony) factor heavily into the story, and one infamous major character death leads to the movie's climax in Laboratory Five, with elements from the manga's events in that conflict included. General Hakuro's role is slightly expanded to set up his role in the Lab Five conclusion. Significant supporting characters like Riza Hawkeye and Maria Ross also make appearances in much more limited capacities, while Maes Hughes, Roy Mustang, and Winry (who gets more screentime despite little to do) retain key supporting roles. In other words, they managed to include most of the major names from the first half of the first TV series, barring excised plotlines and some outlandish outliers like Armstrong.
Beyond the excitement of getting to see favorite characters in live-action for the first time, the most immediate impression the movie makes is in its cinematography. From the beginning, this movie's visuals impress more than any other Japanese live-action anime that I've seen, with many gorgeous shots of landscapes and immaculate sets. Sadly the directing isn't nearly as adept, with many questionable choices for camera angles, scene framing, and general editing flow. Thankfully this gets better (or at least easier to ignore) as the movie progresses, but the direction never does justice to the sumptuous cinematography.
The special effects necessary to make this a true FMA experience are B-movie grade by current Hollywood standards but impressive for a Japanese film, with some genuinely impressive CG sequences during the all-out action scenes. Al also looks impressive when he shows up, but his screentime and role in the story was clearly limited by budgetary constraints; he's not nearly as involved in the plot as he was in the anime version. The special effects do disappoint in scenes involving more organic elements, like Gluttony's powers and a horde of enemies in the climactic battle that look more like rubber dolls than living creatures.
Whether or not the casting works depends heavily on whether or not you find Japanese actors being cast as faux-European characters distracting. Some characters like Winry were changed to have natural hair, while Riza Hawkeye among others don a wig. Ryōsuke Yamada also dons a blond wig to play Edward, but this looks unnatural, distracting from his otherwise physical fit for the role. Many other casting choices are just fine, with the actors for Hughes, Mustang, and Tucker all fitting their roles well. The acting isn't great, with the weakest link being Yasuko Matsuyuki's performance as Lust, but most of it is at least tolerable with few bright points like Ryuta Sato's rendition of Hughes.
Though Netflix offers dubs for the movie in languages beyond Japanese, English isn't one of them. Having dubs in French, German, and Spanish but not English is an interesting call, since most of the principal voice actors from Funimation's dubs of the anime series are still in the business, and an (aborted) theatrical run was planned for the film initially. At least subtitles in English and a number of other languages are offered.
Overall, the movie fares better and would probably score higher with fans if viewed strictly as an extension of the established franchise. However, it suffers from enough explanatory gaps and other flaws that it can't be considered a success as a standalone project.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Strong cinematography, often impressive special effects, reasonable casting and adaptation choices
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