Princess Mononoke (1999)

With an epic scope and wonderful animation, Princess Mononoke shows up and takes us on such a ride. It’s a movie of depth, of insight, of conflict, and of fantasy. While we have CGI to create gods and monsters, the escapism that comes from a completely animated movie and the freedom that the medium permits is unparalleled. Something like Princess Mononoke is a reminder of that. This story would work in live-action but it would be less effective, less enjoyable, and less engaging. Animation can be special.

Coming to us from Hayao Miyazaki, a legend in the business, the movie tells us a story about a forest and the various entities who will decide its future. The protagonist is Ashitaka, a prince from a small village who finds himself cursed after fighting with a demon. He travels west in hopes of finding a cure, effectively giving us an outsider to bear witness to—and potentially participate in—the aforementioned conflict centered on the forest.

The conflict, in essence, is between the people of a town that cuts down the forest in order to make it and its citizens prosperous. Led by Lady Eboshi, there is no mercy shown for the creatures living within the forest, or for the trees and plants that are being destroyed in order to grow the town. Meanwhile, the creatures are fighting back against Eboshi and her soldiers, which is understandable given how their home is being destroyed. Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle, coming in almost like the hero in a Western, we find Ashitaka—who soon finds himself paired with San, a woman who was raised by, and lives with, wolves.

It’s nature vs. industry, and it’s a surprisingly fair take on it. It’s got a side, sure, but even the “villains” get to make their points and there’s some logic and virtue to them. It’s a thematically rich film, which isn’t always expected with animation—even Japanese animation. The stigma remains, fairly or unfairly, that this is stuff for 6-year-olds and that adults will only watch if their kids drag them. A movie like Princess Mononoke, or a director like Hayao Miyazaki, helps fight against that.

Princess Mononoke is a fantastic animated movie with a strong, but nuanced, environmental message.

Princess Mononoke is a visual delight. Even if you aren’t here to think about the central conflict, you’re going to be delighted by the visuals. They’re detailed, stunning, and look different from most other animation you’ll have seen, particularly if you don’t watch much Japanese animation. It’s gorgeous, and regardless of what’s happening or what the characters are doing, you’re going to be tuned in and attentive. The minimal amounts of CGI used to create the demon effects is great and not distracting. Sometimes that can be, especially when overused.

This is an occasionally violent film that earns its PG-13 rating, but the biggest obstacle it has to stop it connecting with children is its running time. It’s just under two hours and 15 minutes in length, and while it has thematic depth and complexity, the narrative, on the whole, can’t quite support it. It would probably play better at an even two hours, but that’s a small quibble.

Princess Mononoke is a fantastic animated movie with a strong, but nuanced, environmental message. It’s got strong action, decent characters, enough plot complexity to keep things interesting, and thematic depth to keep you thinking. And, of course, it looks amazing. Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t make bad-looking films, after all. This is a success—an epic movie with a large scope and long running time. It’s exciting, intelligent, and gorgeous.

Conclusion: Princess Mononoke is a great animated movie.

Recommendation: Check out Princess Mononoke for its thematic depth and gorgeous animation.

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