December 9, 1999
By Franklin Harris
"The One God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It's the way of things. Yes. It's a time for men and their ways."
So says the wizard Merlin in director John Boorman's 1981 film "Excalibur." But if King Arthur's mentor is resigned to the setting of his age and the dawning of a new, the gods and demons of Muromachi Era Japan (1336-1573) are not.
Ecological themes often play a role in the films of the man called Japan's master animator, Hayao Miyazaki. They dominate his classic "Naussicaš of the Valley of the Wind," and they turn up again, in more tempered form, in his most popular film, "Princess Mononoke," now playing in the United States in limited release.
Environmental issues are nothing new to American audiences, even when they crop up in animation. But Miyazaki's work is a world away from the propaganda spewed forth in films like "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" (1992) and Disney's "Pocahontas" (1995) and in TV shows like Ted Turner's abysmal (on every level) "Captain Planet."
Like Boorman's Merlin, Miyazaki is resigned to the ways of men, even if he doesn't like them. He plays fair with all sides. And he is just as quick to criticize Greenpeace as he is anyone else, as he does in a 1993 interview in Animerica magazine.
The complex moral perspective of "Princess Mononoke" is only one thing that makes the film stand above every animated feature film produced in America in the last 30-or-more years -- with the possible exception of Brad Bird's criminally neglected "The Iron Giant."
Released in America by Miramax, the English-dubbed version of "Princess Mononoke" sports an all-star voice cast, including Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton and Jada Pinkett Smith.
As the film begins, a small village is under attack by an unknown demon. The village's young prince, Ashitaka (Crudup), manages to kill the demon, but not before he is infected with the demon's deadly, rage-inducing poison.
The demon, meanwhile, turns out to be a boar god, driven insane by an iron ball lodged in his body.
So, with limited time left, Ashitaka traces the boar's path of destruction back into the forest in search of the source of the iron ball. The trail leads to Iron Town, a fortified village where the only industry is iron smelting.
But Iron Town is no ordinary industrial settlement. It's leader, Lady Eboshi (Driver), is trying to create a prosperous home for her people, many of whom, including prostitutes and lepers, have been abandoned by the rest of society. If doing so means cutting down the nearby forest in order to mine the iron ore underneath, then so be it.
The forest spirits, however, have other ideas.
The surviving boar gods prepare for one last-ditch attack, ape gods struggle to plant new trees where the old once stood and the wolf gods stage hit-and-fade raids on Iron Town's supply lines.
It is with the wolf gods that we find San (Danes), the Princess Mononoke of the movie's title. Raised from infancy by the wolf god Moro (Anderson), San is a human girl who will do anything to rid the forest of other humans.
As if Iron Town doesn't have enough troubles, what with all the forest spirits attacking it, the neighboring samurai have their own designs on the village and its weapons-making facilities. And a wayward monk in the emperor's employ (Thornton) seems to be playing all the sides against each other.
The ultimate prize in this conflict is the Spirit of the Forest himself, a deer-like creature with a human face, who may be able to cure Ashitaka but whose continued existence is a threat to Eboshi's dreams for her people and the emperor's mad quest for immortality.
Utilizing both traditional cell animation and computer graphics -- the latter so sparingly that they are unnoticeable -- Miyazaki creates a lush world filled with creatures both strange and familiar. World Fantasy Award-winning author Neil Gaiman's script deftly conveys the meaning of Miyazaki's Japanese-language original without being so literal it sounds alien to American ears. And Jo Hisaishi's score gives "Princess Mononoke" an epic feel you can't get from Phil Collins and Elton John songs.
The only misstep is the casting of Danes as San. She could be the poster child for why not all good actors or actresses can make the transition to voiceover acting.
If there is any justice in Hollywood, Miramax will eventually give "Princess Mononoke" the wide release it deserves. Audiences should have the pleasure of seeing Miyazaki's masterpiece on a theater screen before it moves to home video. And they shouldn't have to drive 100 miles to see it.