Beautiful On Every Level -- `Princess Mononoke': Story And Visuals Mesh Well

Anime fans, take note. From tomorrow through next Thursday, the Egyptian Theatre will present "A Retrospective of the Legendary Studio Ghibli: The Magic of Miyazaki, Takahata and Kondo." Check theater listings or call 206-323-4978 for show times.

Movie review XXXX "Princess Mononoke," featuring the voices of Billy Crudup, Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton and Jada Pinkett Smith. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, with an English-language adaptation by Neil Gaiman. 135 minutes. Varsity and Pacific Place. "PG-13" - contains animated scenes of violence, gore and brief scenes of dismemberment.

True artistry in feature animation is so rare these days, because something usually gets sacrificed in the process. If lots of effort is expended in visual magic, the plot may suffer. Intricate stories may demand that the visuals take a back seat.

That's why Hayao Miyazaki's anime masterpiece "Princess Mononoke," Japan's most successful film, is such a treat. Beautifully constructed and painstakingly written, this is about as close to a perfect animated epic as you're likely to get.

Miyazaki is called the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, but with "Mononoke" he leaves the mouse in the dust. Mononoke wears wolf skins; no crinoline and lace here. Upon first meeting her prince, she tries to knife him. Her nemesis, Lady Eboshi, isn't even a true villain. (And there's no sugary soundtrack, thank God.)

All this makes "Mononoke" one of the most human works of animation to grace the screen. Plus, a star-spangled English dub and terrific translation by comic-book genius Neil Gaiman smooths the transition to American theaters.

But "Mononoke" isn't a kiddie treat. A gory scene of a village massacre by samurai is early evidence of that.

"Princess Mononoke" is primarily the tale of Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a warrior prince cursed with a spreading wound by a mad boar god he kills.

In his quest for a cure, he finds Iron Town, a gigantic ore refinery at the center of numerous conflicts:

The icy but kind-hearted Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who runs the town, cares for her outcast workers; in turn, they make her firearms and defend the fort from attacking samurai. Eboshi knows she can do more for her people, if only she can clear the nearby forest and mine its ore.

But that land is the Forest of the Gods, inhabited by sentient war-hungry boars and Moro, a defensive wolf god (Gillian Anderson). Moro's cubs and her adopted human daughter, San (Claire Danes), aka Mononoke, clash with the humans. Above all of them is the neutral Forest Spirit, hunted by an unscrupulous monk (Billy Bob Thornton). As the boars and San prepare to fight the humans, Ashitaka tries to help them all understand that they can live together without strife.

Labeling "Princess Mononoke" an eco-fable is too simplistic; it's a tale of clashing wills. "Mononoke's" interest lies in the fact that the battle between right and wrong isn't clear-cut. Miyazaki nobly resists the urge to force any resolutions.

Making "Mononoke" had long been a dream of Miyazaki's, and that's apparent in the visuals. This is a film that begs for a big screen - Miayzaki's sweeping landscapes and wide shots of action sequences leave you breathless. The director personally did the final edit on every one of tens of thousands of animation cels. Not surprisingly, he said that "Mononoke" would be the last film he directs - yet another reason to see this ravishing piece of art while it's still in theaters.

At tonight's opening of "Princess Mononoke" at the Varsity Theater, patrons can win passes to Wolf Haven and other wolf-related treats. Plan to attend the 7 p.m. show to benefit from the giveaway.