With its richly realized universe of gods and demons, its complex panoply of human characters and its poignant parable of the costs and benefits of human civilization, "Princess Mononoke" is more than a terrific animated film. It's a great work of fantasy, a classic quest narrative in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, suffused with magic and wonder but also flavored with enough adult sadness and realism that its world brushes awfully close to ours. Maybe George Lucas would make a movie like this if he had the dramatic chops or the largeness of spirit to pull it off; next to the beauty and tragedy of "Princess Mononoke," "Star Wars: Episode I" looks like dim radiation from a dull and distant galaxy.
Hayao Miyazaki's fluid action scenes, painterly uses of color and shade and myth-based storytelling have long made him a legend to cartoon geeks. The makers of Disney's "Mulan," in fact, saw their film as something of a Miyazaki homage for American audiences. Miramax has now gone its parent company one better, commissioning a new English script (by acclaimed comic-book and sci-fi author Neil Gaiman) for "Princess Mononoke," Miyazaki's biggest Japanese hit, along with several major box-office stars to read it.
We're a long way from the crude English overdubs done for "Speed Racer" and "Astro Boy" on 1960s television; the substitute cast provide characterizations of as much range and subtlety as the animation itself, and most viewers probably won't realize or care that the film was originally in another language.
On its most obvious level, "Princess Mononoke" is a yarn about a heroic quest into the realm of the supernatural, a storytelling mode as familiar as the legends of Beowulf, Siegfried or Hercules. But it also offers a complicated and untraditional view of gender and a highly contemporary lesson about human economy and its inevitable effect on the environment, along with a steadfast refusal to think in simplistic good-vs.-evil equations. If this is beginning to sound boring, don't worry. What I'm trying to say is that "Princess Mononoke" is likely to do the impossible -- it will thrill audience members aged from about 10 to 100 (although the violence in this movie is never gratuitous, it may prove too intense for younger children), and it may also get them thinking.
Our questing hero is Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a leader of the Emishi clan, a people banished to a distant land by the emperor's edict. We are in Japan's Muromachi era, during the late Middle Ages, when iron-making and the use of firearms are sweeping through the still-rural, feudal nation. In Miyazaki's mythologized version of history, this is also the era when the ancient gods of the wilderness, although still resisting human domination, are being hunted to extinction. Defending his village from a marauding demon -- an enormous boar crawling with crimson worms -- Ashitaka touches the monster and is contaminated by its evil power. Facing certain death, or, still worse, his own conversion into a demon, Ashitaka's only option is to leave his people forever and try to learn what drove the boar-god mad in the first place.
Neither Ashitaka nor the audience is surprised to learn that Iron Town, a dark, smoke-belching fortress of industry presided over by the acquisitive and domineering Lady Eboshi (graced with the chilly tones of Minnie Driver) is the principal source of disorder in this universe. But Miyazaki never lets us jump to easy conclusions. Lady Eboshi does indeed want to kill the Forest Spirit, the presiding god of the wilderness, and cut down its trees, rendering the remaining animals into dumb beasts ready to serve humanity. But her objective is prosperity, not cruelty. She is an enlightened despot who hires lepers and prostitutes for the best-paid jobs in her iron foundry and gun works; her vision of Iron Town as a military-industrial powerhouse is not about personal greed but a better future for her people.
Trying to head off the impending warfare between humans and animals, Ashitaka rides his red elk into the forest, where the tribes of wolves, apes, boars and other creatures are preparing a last stand against the human invaders. There he meets a human child named San, the Princess Mononoke herself (Claire Danes), who has been raised by the brusque wolf-god Moro (Gillian Anderson) as a sworn enemy of her own people. But by the time Ashitake and San overcome their mutual mistrust and begin to work together, it may be too late. The noble and warlike boars have embarked on a terrible, suicidal assault against Iron Town and Lady Eboshi has dispatched the cynical monk Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) to kill the Forest Spirit, a spectral, majestic deer with a nearly human face.
Amid the wrenching, vertiginously exciting action scenes that conclude "Princess Mononoke," Miyazaki never loses his grasp of the film's main question -- can the hauntingly beautiful but fundamentally alien spirit of the wilderness coexist with human civilization, or must the whole earth be subjugated to reason and functionality? He doesn't pretend to know the answer, and viewers should be forewarned that for all its whimsy, awe and sheer loveliness, "Princess Mononoke" is not, after all, a Disney film. It doesn't shy away from death and loss, or from the idea that evil acts have consequences that can sometimes be ameliorated but never undone. Unlike most sugarcoated Hollywood animations, this film actually makes emotional demands on its audience, and asks that we see ourselves both in its heroes and its villains. In an age when bigness so often correlates with emptiness, here's a big movie for the ages, full to the brim with sympathy, imagination and sheer visual delight.