Warner Bros. live-action FMA film has finally arrived on Netflix to surprisingly little fanfare. This week in anime, Nick and Jacob discover why this particular project didn't get the U.S. theatrical attention of its peers.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead. Not Safe For Work warning for content and language.
You can read our review of the film here!
So Jake, you're a pretty big fan of Fullmetal Alchemist, right?
But yes I uh, may have watched the original series more times than I can actually count. Bought all the manga. It was my all-time favorite anime back in the days when I could just pick one of those.
So I think you're the best person to ask about this whole equivalent exchange thing. I get that in order to gain something, something of equal value must be lost. But what the fuck did we gain by losing all the good parts of FMA for this movie?
Yeah, I had my bar nice and low coming into this one, trying to keep an open mind, hoping for a few surprises. I've enjoyed several recent JPN live-action adaptations! Attack on Titan, Tokyo Ghoul, Rurouni Kenshin, yanno there've been some laudable efforts.
Pictured: my experience watching this movie
Admittedly I've never been a huge FMA fan. I've seen both anime and read a good portion of the manga, liked what I saw of all three, but it's not a perennial favorite for me like it is for many folks I know. So I was excited to see how they'd adapt such a big beloved story into a live-action movie. Turns out that they uh, didn't.
I mean to be fair the adaptation part was the absolute least of their problems. On paper, just on a big broad plot outline level, what they came up with was fine. Not great, but fine, clearly some thought behind the truncation choices. There's so much fantasy worldbuilding and character relationship webbing and aesthetic mishmash going on in FMA even at its most basic that it's gonna be supremely difficult to adapt any of that to a two-hour standalone movie. They tried, for sure.
But HOO BOY DID THEY NOT SUCCEED. Where do I even start—
—oh right, HOW ABOUT THE WIGS?
No sweetie, that is the most shake-and-go rag I have ever seen.
Yeah, the costuming is one of the first big hurdles for any live-action anime adaptation. Some might have an easier time than others, but it's hard to find a center between capturing iconic designs and making those designs work with real people.
Some of the casting and costuming does a good job with this, but Edward never stops looking like an excited cosplayer. Especially when he's next to somebody not
wearing a wig.
Yeah, this is very much not about the hair color. Sure, the "naturally blond Japanese boy band idol" thing is distracting, but these wigs are So Bad that even natural hair colors look ridiculous.
Hughes and I feel the same way about that mop, lady.
Hell, the contrast is even obvious when the wigs are out of focus in the shot.
I can barely tell that's Edward at all but I CAN TELL HE'S WEARING A WIG THAT WAS STYLED IN TWENTY SECONDS.
Sorry, I'm really not this much of a monster about production design details, but the wigs are only the most obvious component of what feels like a cosplay vanity project rather than a movie, shot on a series of opulent yet vacant and suspiciously clean backlot sets (and like five minutes of Italy). Even when the cinematography is pleasant, it can't cover up how fake and staged everything looks, propped up by the flattest direction and most sluggish pacing possible.
Yeah, the other problem that the movie runs into is that it feels really cheap. There are some decent CGI effects alongside some really bad ones, but every scene feels like it was shot on a tiny set that they couldn't get much out of. In maybe my favorite bit of wallpaper-ing, there's a scene where Ed and Al go to an abandoned building to search for clues. Instead of seeing them enter from the outside or search different rooms, we get a single shot of them walking into one (1) spacious set and saying "This is the last room". You just know they didn't have the time or budget for multiple warehouse sets, so you get one plain brick rectangle with a couple of pipes in it.
"oh the wares they housed here once, in this warehouse, that has been here for decades, and was not constructed Wednesday"
But y'know, budget film making is its own sort of aesthetic, and you can still make something good out of a cheap set with clever direction or compelling performances.
Yeah it's not like Tokyo Ghoul or Attack on Titan were lavishly funded by comparison. And even if it looked like crap throughout, (which it doesn't always, there are plenty of nice effects shots alongside the Tragic Mistakes), a good story and strong acting can elevate even the lowest productions.
U N F O R T U N A T E L Y . . .
Now I'm not an expert on Japanese acting. My major frame of reference is some episodes of Kamen Rider my friends have forced me to watch. But I feel safe saying that nobody in the movie is giving any shits about their role.
I have seen several J-dramas, a couple Kamen Riders, a healthy number of Japanese variety shows and online programming—my point is that I can't judge nuances in a Japanese actor's performance, but I've seen my fair share of cheesy bullshit, and I can tell good from bad from so-bad-it's-good in the broadest sense. But I was floored by how nonexistently terrible the acting was in this movie. Absolutely floored. This wasn't just wooden and crappy compared to the more impressive performances of Titan or Ghoul, this was Not Good Enough for a Middling J-Drama bad.
The best it ever gets is when you see an actor who's a decent visual approximation of their character.
Lust and Mustang look alright.
But once they start talking, it all feels flat in a really boring way.
The acting level was such that I would have believed it was a fan film if everyone wasn't so absurdly pretty. That's really the tipoff that the movie was clearly cast on appearances first. If any of these guys do have acting talent, they apparently weren't allowed to share it with us. Wooden read after wooden read, with not a single line letting us into these characters' motivational space or emotional reality or nothin. Sometimes they "emote" by going from monotone to screaming, but none of it is believable for a second.
At least Mustang will always have the Yuri On Ice OP to brag about.
Yeah, idk what his acting is like in other venues, but he gave maybe
one of the better efforts in this movie (there's very little daylight between these universally awful performances) and it was still just
So yeah, technically the film ain't great, but there are plenty of folks who might be interested in seeing FMA's story again, and maybe they'd want to see how you change things to work for a two-hour movie. Unfortunately what we get is more like a highlight reel of the first arc's fan-favorite scenes delivered with no buildup or tension.
And by first arc you mean: they get all the way to the zombies somehow.
See if I was adapting this material, that would be the part of the manga I'd be most eager to avoid. Like this is a movie that doesn't have the budget to put Alphonse in most scenes because he's fully CG. They literally had to cut corners on putting the co-protagonist into his own movie. Poor Al's barely in this! But they went for the zombies?
For some reason, they also pull some elements from the manga's finale for a big climactic battle that they don't even show us, but on the whole there aren't any HUGE changes from the manga. Except for, uh...
They needed a pre-boss villain, and hey, everyone hates him already, so let's just keep him around a little longer! So they give Tucker his normal role in the story, then they give him responsibility for Al's fake-memory identity crisis, THEN they give him a weird hostage-situation-driven Philosopher's Stone reveal that makes his motivations Extremely Confusing (since when did he have a vendetta against Ed for being "inferior?") before they just kill him off and have Hakuro pick up his exposition. What a pointless addition.
I'm not against making major changes for adaptation. These combinations of elements might work fine with thoughtful dialogue, meaningful character arcs, and good performances. But without all those things, it just feels like an FMA mashup recap that no one asked for, performed by bland yet attractive models in expensive cosplay.
But maybe the most unforgivable thing is how they handle FMA's most infamous scene. Like if there's one part of an FMA adaptation you absolutely should nail, it's the reveal of Tucker's chimera. That moment is one of the most visceral parts of the whole franchise. Just seeing somebody put a wig on a dog can make me upset.
And they make a beanie baby that got left out in the rain.
Weirdly, maybe because that scene was already ruined for me by Brotherhood's rendition (haters to the left), I wasn't as bothered by this scene. All the scenes before it were soulless and bad, and all the scenes after it were soulless and bad. What's one more, right?
But I can't believe they went with that snuggly-ass teddy-dog design.
FMA is a gritty and gruesome story. Seeing this stuff in live-action should be more disturbing, not less. But this whole movie was weirdly sanitized. For example, this scene takes place in serene daylight, the chimera looks extra-fluffy, and (awful as it is to say), she doesn't seem distressed or in pain or anything. It made Ed's halfhearted bad-acting-scream seem all the more out of place.
Maybe I just had too much faith left at that point in the movie. My first thought when I saw Alexander on screen was "oh man this is gonna be terrifying with a real dog" but then we got there and it's just a total wet fart of a scene.
I WOULD BUY A PLUSHIE OF SOMETHING THAT LOOKED LIKE THAT, NOT CONSIDER IT AN ABOMINATION. Maybe that's what they were going for, given how cynical this whole endeavor seems.
I can't, I just, the longer I think about this fucking movie...
I've read some interviews with the director where he says he's a huge fan of the manga, that they even delayed making the movie because they knew the CG tech wasn't there yet to make Al believable in a live-action setting.
But none of that comes through in the end result. It just feels like a hollow movie with no real soul of its own.
I mean, the care taken with the cinematography and effects does come through. That is the one thing it seemed like they understood how to execute; even when the end result doesn't work, it comes closer than I expected because they made a lot of good visual choices. They went for stylization over hyper-realism. They lit the effects differently to match the shot most of the time. There are some nice surprises in the visual department. But everything else is so disappointing that it's kind of absurd. I mentioned the editing earlier, but it's really distracting how much of the movie is "a long conversation where the camera cuts exactly two stiff seconds after each person's line." There's no momentum to it whatsoever.
And then there are some not-so-nice surprises...
Yeah, the inorganic alchemy stuff looks way better than the uh...fleshy stuff. Poor Gluttony. Even Al looks pretty good most of the time.
I did capture the worst compositing shot he gets in the movie. Apparently they hadn't figured out how to get that "shine" just right in the dark, because it's still too bright. But usually CG has the opposite problem where it can't hold up to daylight cinematography, so progress?
But Al being all-CG to begin with kinda sums up where this movie went wrong. They sacrificed the co-protagonist's screentime for the sake of keeping him fully computer-generated. But you know what? In-universe, Al is literally a piece of junk that was rusting away in someone's basement. You could build a puppet or a suit and even if it looked dumpy sometimes, it would be a better choice because you could PUT MORE OF THE MAIN CHARACTER IN THE MOVIE. People would forgive you! It doesn't have to be the peak of Japanese CGI achievement, it just needs to be an emotionally engaging version of this story. This movie doesn't come close to achieving the desired emotion of its scenes even once, so the occasionally (not even consistently) impressive CG doesn't matter.
And that more than anything is the movie's biggest failing. While I know folks who enjoy FMA's plot and action scenes, the biggest thing that's brought people back to the franchise is the characters. People love Al and Winry and Scar and Armstrong and dozens of others enough to still care about them over a decade later. And none of their charm is in this at all.
And just to be clear: this movie is not so bad it's good. Despite the awful wigs and weird editing and Fluffy Ninas, there is no joy to be had from it. I really couldn't believe how bored I was the whole time, how often I kept checking the time and agonizing that only four more minutes of runtime had passed in an endless expository conversation.
It's no Deathflix, sadly.
Yeah disasterpieces like these don't just grow on trees.
So yeah, this movie ends up not really existing for anyone. It's not constructed well enough to work as its own beast, but it lacks any of the heart that attracted people to FMA in the first place. It also isn't disastrous enough to make for good trainwreck viewing.
Spending so much time thinking about it, I'm just
I'm about two yards off-camera
in the shrubs like
While I'm not sure this was the worst modern live-action anime adaptation I've seen, it was absolutely the most boring. And that's the worst case scenario for anybody, I think. It didn't perform well in Japan, and its planned theatrical run over here was cancelled for perhaps related reasons. Maybe in the future somebody will do this material justice, but I won't be holding my breath.
Well we can always look forward to
the next live-action anime adaptation!