I don’t know exactly what I was expecting out of the new “Fullmetal Alchemist” (FMA) movie, but this wasn’t it. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, this movie strikes me as a cross between watching an extended version of FMA’s videogame cuts scenes (especially “Curse of the Crimson Elixir”), a light novel, and a studio Ghibli movie.
For those of you who don’t know, “Fullmetal Alchemist” has two TV series, the standard “Fullmetal Alchemist” (2003-04), which came first, and the more recent one, “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” (2009), which adapts the FMA comic in its entirety. The story for this movie, “The Sacred Star of Milos,” could fit into either series, as it is a stand-alone adventure of Ed and Al’s. What’s not going to fit in either, however, is the animation style studio Bones chose.
First of all, the animation is wonderfully smooth, as one expects from Bones’s movies. There’s even an ambitious train wreck scene. But from the moment the film begins to roll, you realize it did not take art direction from the series – either of them. Instead, it looks like a Studio Ghibli movie (“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”), from world to plot. The backgrounds are detailed and well-made, and very Ghibli. While this will not prove a barrier to someone who’s never watched it, to a fan of either series, it may prove too strange a mixing of two very different franchises. Yet, to those familiar with the FMA videogames, it should fit right in, the story’s setting of Milos much resembling the ancient city in “Curse of the Crimson Elixir.” You could call it film alchemy, I suppose.
For example, while watching, a niggling feeling bothered me until about halfway through the film, when I realized that the shadows are almost non-existent on the characters, much like the videogames, and Ghibli’s movies. Main character Ed’s trademark billowing red cloak, rain or shine, rarely has shadows on it, and characters’ faces, even less often. Ed’s bangs, one of his most defining characteristics, are drawn not in smooth, thin plaits with great care to the color value of the sun shining through them as in both TV series, but as amorphous blobs that more resemble rug tassles flopping about to and fro. Yet, the animation quality itself leaves nothing lacking. Overall, I went away from the film unable to tell if it had a large budget or a small one – and that’s not something you want to be thinking from your film viewing.
But, when a film has two colons in the title, where should we set our expectations?
While both FMA series have been filled with music of great care, from theme songs to background music (full orchestra background music in all of “FMA: Brotherhood,” for example). But, I didn’t notice the music in this movie at all. The ending theme song is again done by headliner L’Arc en Ciel, as with the previous FMA movie; notably, the movie’s release was somewhat timed with L’Arc en Ciel’s American concert performance in March. Take it or leave it, the music didn’t detract, but wasn’t otherwise memorable.
So, let’s get to story content. Was this movie fun? Yes, it was. There were even several imaginative twists that I quite enjoyed. But the English dub suffers greatly from an extremely literal translation of lines that are already incredibly expository. About eighty percent of the dialogue could be removed entirely and the scenes would be better for it. In the rest of the twenty percent, the lines are fantastic – Ed has wonderful one-liners that floated my enjoyment of the movie, and I wonder if they came from the actor and English director rather than the original script, as they are so at-odds with the remainder of the movie’s dialogue. The acting of all the characters, to set to rest your fears, is quite good. The movie follows Ed and Al and brings in new main characters, the typical girl-and-her-brother and a-new-separatist-ragtag-force. But they fly around with mechanical bat wings, which, while it strikes more of Ghibli’s universes than FMA’s, is quite new to the series, and does lend itself to the atmosphere of the film.
One of my biggest issues with the film, however, is continuity. It’s as if the script had no continuity checking for in-world physics. (“How many railroad ties can you break before the bridge collapses? You know geothermal heat doesn’t work if there’s magma at the surface, right?” – both questions I asked during the film.) Yes, this is a show with “magic,” but magic-based science, and the manga, from which this movie is stemming for viewer expectations, really tries to capture Conservation of Matter and real-life continuity in all aspects. FMA has many zany elements; Ghibli has more extreme elements that are often ridiculous upon consideration. This film leans towards the latter (ex: guy with no face). The part with greatest continuity, I suppose, is that it takes Winry, Roy, and Hawkeye the entire movie to get to Ed and Al, who are stuck on the country’s southern border, caught in a conflict between Amestris and Creta.
The movie takes a Ghibli-FMA meld to the situation: Ed doesn’t bother expounding his views much – the Philosopher’s Stone is a bit of a trope at this point, both to us and the writers, apparently – but the people who seek it this time around are very earth-friendly, in a Ghibli sort of way. Impressively, they take view to the trials of obtaining the Stone that hasn’t been seen before in the vast FMA franchise. On the other hand, the emotional content could have been done much better. When one “makes a movie even people who haven’t seen the original series can enjoy/get,” that should translate, to me, into something like “Live Free or Die Hard,” not a movie where everyone is left wondering why the character development feels hollow.
In other words, it’s an action movie that should have focused more on action. The settings are intriguing and wonderfully creative, there are good plot twists, and the animation is great. Just don’t go looking for mood lighting, a soundtrack you want to immediately buy, or an intense emotional experience. Enjoy Ed’s lines, the flying and crashing, the ending crisis, and the buckets of goopy, Ghibli-esque blood. For those of you who chose to, you will find a bonus: look for one of the most well-known, emotional promotional pictures in the FMA universe, making it into the film as the canonical opening of a scene.
Photo above via FMA.wikia.com