Leaden English dialogue from miscast voice talent diminishes the power of 'Mononoke'
Some foreign films should never be dubbed. Reading an elementary translation in subtitle while hearing the passion and emotion in the inflection of the original voices is often more honest and more engrossing than hearing the same words spoken in English.
This seems to be especially true of "Princess Mononoke," an animated, fairy tale allegory about mankind's exploitation of nature set in feudal Japan and created by anime master Hayao Miyazaki.
Redubbed for American release, this handsome, stirring movie looks and feels spectacular with its incredible watercolors of forest landscapes, its giant and intelligent wild animals and its ancient, epic mythology.
But boy, does it sound silly with its leaden translations spoken by such miscast voice talent as Claire Danes as a girl raised by wolves and Billy Bob Thornton as a double-dealing monk.
As with many anime films, "Princess Mononoke" invents its own mythology and takes place in ancient days of giant animal gods, forest spirits and soul-consuming demons.
The story follows a heroic prince named Ashitaka (voice of Billy Crudup) who in killing a monster that attacks his village is infected by a parasite -- spawned from the iron bullets of primitive human firearms -- that drives animals to evil madness and lays waste to nature.
Commissioned with a crusade by his elders, he set out to save the forest and all life within from the early stages of humanity-induced extinction. But when he reaches Iron Town, where the consumption of natural resources is vital to survival, he realizes his mission is more complex than it seems.
Iron Town is lead by the Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver in the best voice performance in the movie), who is at once compassionate to her subjects yet ruthlessly determined to kill the animal gods that protect the surrounding forest and its inhabitants.
The title character, voiced by Danes, is a girl who grew up in the wild to become the savage human guardian of the forest, along side her adoptive, wolf-goddess mother (Gillian Anderson). She is Ashitaka's destiny, of course, but "Princess Mononoke" is no Disney cartoon romance.
Bloody battles ensue between the warriors of Iron Town and the wildlife (it's not PG-13 for nothing), as Ashitaka seeks a peaceful co-existence where man learns to utilize natural resources without stripping them bare.
The driving force behind the entire anime industry, Miyazaki's legendary narrative and artistic talents shine through this American release of "Mononoke" in the magical, harmonic atmosphere he creates in the dense, mysterious forests full of ghostly tree sprites and armies of wild boars and wolves.
But the serious message within this dark fairy tale becomes unwieldy in the translation to English -- especially in the dialogue of the animals, which seems oddly out of place -- and the film comes off like heavy-handed sermon first and an elegant fable second.
But even dubbed, "Mononoke" is almost worth seeing just for its magnificent, imposing finale that finds the Great Forest Spirit -- an multiple-horned, elk-like creature with a human-like face that is the lifeforce of nature itself -- transformed into a shimmering, semi-gelatinous ether that spreads destruction throughout the forest when attacked by the Iron Town army. It's one of the most incredible animated sequences ever put to film.
But my suggestion would be to wait for the wide-screen, subtitled version on video or DVD so the impact is not diminished by the distractingly simplistic American voice-overs.