Remember when they were just called cartoons?
Whether it was Scooby-Doo or Watership Down, it was just a cartoon. Not an animated feature or Japanamation or the latest fad tag, animé. The desire to come up with another term is understandable. The cartoon has evolved considerably since "Steamboat Willie." Today, cartoons such as Watership Down or the popular animé Akira can convey themes that are, to say the least, more intelligent and mature than "coyote chases roadrunner."
But as the recent release of festival darling Princess Mononoke shows, cartoon features, sophisticated as they may be, still have a long way to go to be on the dramatic level of live-action films, a goal that seems all the more unattainable as animated filmmakers cling stubbornly to their old conventions.
If anyone does deserve to call a cartoon something other than what it is, it's the Japanese. Questions of language aside, the Japanese earn this right by virtue of their stunning advances in animated storytelling. As in the aforementioned Akira, Japanese animators have taken cartoons to new heights of maturity, with complex stories on mature themes and sex and violence on a heretofore unseen level. One of the artists responsible for these advances is Princess Mononoke screenwriter and director Hayao Miyazaki. A veteran of the Japanese animation system, Miyazaki has been producing his own feature films for 20 years. His 1989 film Kiki's Delivery Service established him as one of animé's leading practitioners. But even the success of that film, which like most animé has a cult following in America, didn't prepare him for the adoring clamor that Princess Mononoke created when it was originally released in Japan in 1997. The eco-fable set in a mythical ancient Japanese past went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
For its Western release, Princess Mononoke was given a spruced-up English script by comic book writer Neil Gaiman -- who has done for comics what animators like Miyazaki have done for cartoons, given them a new level of maturity. In addition, the American release benefits greatly from the presence of name actors dubbing the voices of the animated characters.
The story follows young Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) of the long-lost Emishi clan in Northern Japan. After suffering a mortal wound as a result of saving his village from a demon, Ashitaka embarks on a spiritual quest that eventually takes him to Iron Town. Here Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) has built a refuge for ex-prostitutes and lepers. The town thrives by mining the nearby forests bare for iron ore and is powerfully defended by Lady Eboshi's rifles. But as Ashitaka soon learns, Eboshi has many enemies, including a rival samurai gang, the gorillas and boars of the forest who resent its destruction, and a duplicitious monk Jigo who wants to use Eboshi to help him behead the spirit of the forest, a beast that will give his patron, the Emperor, immortality. And then there is the mysterious girl San (Claire Danes), who fights with the forest's wolves and believes herself to be one of them.
If all this sounds a bit fantastic, well, it is. This is fantasy filmmaking on a level of Star Wars but with a lot more poetry. If Princess Mononoke's more incredulous elements are a tad over the top for adults (and they are), Miyazaki squeezes by because of his conviction in his tale. Miyazaki has the eye and dramatic pacing of the best live-action filmmakers. And his particular genius as a screenwriter lies in his ability to show the ambiguities in all his characters, their capacity for both good and evil.
Intermingling through all the rival factions converging on Iron Town, Ashitaka becomes entangled in a struggle to help the disparate parties live in peace, an outcome that would also save him and the ravaged forest. Inevitably all sides clash and Miyazaki's story falls apart as the remarkably original tale that has preceded descends into pat animated fireworks for an ending. Narratively it's no more thoughtful than the ending to any Disney flick or -- to reference a different kind of cartoon -- any Arnold Schwartzenegger film.
Despite my tendency to mispronounce the film's title as Princess Pokémon, Miyazaki's shouldn't be confused with that other Japanese-style cartoon out now. Definitely not for young kids, Princess Mononoke has bursts of gruesome violence, a complicated plot (to clarify things a little, the actual character of Princess Mononoke is only referred to and does not actually appear in the film, so don't torture yourself, as I did, trying to figure out what you missed), and a mature theme about the importance of preserving our environment and learning to live in a diverse eco-system. Teens of all ages, attracted no doubt by the fad factor, will find a lot to enjoy. But adult viewers are likely to find this fantasy a featherweight compared to the everyday concerns of the world, and a cop-out of a conclusion will do little to win them over.