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FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is Beautiful But Hollow (Review)

FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is Beautiful But Hollow (Review)

The good news about the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movie from Netflix and Warner Bros. is that when it’s silly, it’s fun. The bad news is that when it tries to get serious, it gets silly. There’s a juvenile streak running through the entirety of director Fumihiko Sori’s adaptation that boosts the broad comedy but absolutely batters any moment trying to be deep and sincere.

For those unfamiliar with Hiromu Arakawa’s manga series, the story focuses on two alchemist brothers, Edward (Ryôsuke Yamada) and Alphonse (Atom Mizuishi), who lose their mother at a young age and nearly destroy themselves trying to bring her back. Alphonse loses his body, and his soul is transferred into a giant suit of armor. Edward loses his arm and leg and gains the ability to transmute without a Transmutation Circle. They both grow up to be talented alchemists with the ability to shape elements in the world around them. Together with their childhood friend/mechanic Winry Rockbell (Tsubasa Honda), they search for the Philosopher’s Stone, which has the power to restore the bodies they lost, while uncovering a diabolical military conspiracy.

Fullmetal Alchemist gets off to a fantastic start. The opening features the brothers’ youthful tragedy and a quirky fight scene showcasing their grown-up talents. The CGI nails the sweet spot between realism and unreal, creating a perfect living cartoon. The European-esque vistas of the industrial era country of Amestris are also stunning, from the bursting green contrast of a tree-lined cobblestone road to the sunlit dust of an alchemist’s personal library. Likewise, Ed’s costume and the military regalia for the distrusting Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka) and genial Maes Hughes (Ryûta Satô) are a cosplayer’s dream.

Yamada is charming as Ed, emoting mostly by scrunching his face and channeling the classic anime hero vibe. Brash, brilliant, and hot-tempered, the Ed of this adaptation is definitely childish, and an almost unwitting participant in the larger story who just wants to get a Philosopher’s Stone, get his brother’s body back, and be on his way despite the pesky, country-destroying threat that’s landed at his feet.

That threat, specifically, comes from three Homunculi, artificial humans crafted from our darker desires. The characters are drawn beautifully, like goth kids gifted horrible magic powers even though they’d rather be smoking behind the cafeteria. Their leader, Lust (Yasuko Mastuyuki), is a brooding queen whose fingers become steel spikes with a thought, while Envy (Kanata Hongô) can take on anyone’s appearance and Gluttony (Shinji Uchyama) devours dozens with glee.

Their plan collides with Ed’s goal in an expected way, but the road to get their is bumpy and full of detours.

The underlying problem with Fullmetal Alchemist is that it fills its overlong two-hour-and-15-minute runtime with lengthy sequences that are forgotten by the following scene. The worst is a red herring quest to find Lab 5 that sends Ed, Al, and Winry to an abandoned building where Ed and Al fight (under ridiculously contrived circumstances), stare at each other for an eternity, and then don’t sweat it the rest of the movie. It would be fine if the movie dipped occasionally into episodic storytelling, but Sori and company do very little to weave those moments into the main plot or, even more wastefully, to utilize that time to build to a bigger impact by the end.

As a result, the middle of Fullmetal Alchemist heading all the way to the climax is stretched to the breaking point of attention. Scenes of emotional devastation are presented solely with one character (almost always Ed) gnashing his teeth and rending his garments for such an egregiously long time that it becomes silly and repetitive. For a movie aimed at middle schoolers, it’s an awfully long slog to earn the goofy CGI-fueled final battle.

To its credit, the movie goes to some bizarre places, notably with chimera alchemist Shou Tucker (Yô Ôlzumi) and sequences at the ethereal Gate of Truth, but Ed is so singularly focused and just so overcome with emotions all the time that his grief devolves into a train station announcement cycling on repeat. He just wants his brother’s body back. He just wants his brother’s body back. He just wants his brother’s body back. Saving the world is a side effect.

It’s a shame that the other characters aren’t given any room to breath, that so much of the weight of the story is on Ed’s small shoulders. Winry is shamefully reduced to damsel status, and Al—for all of Ed’s focused devotion—acts like a kind of pet who arrives to battle just in time but disappears from scenes as soon as he’s unnecessary. In that same vein, perhaps the strangest element of the movie is the sincere lack of action after the opening established how talented these young alchemists are. There are too many scenes where Ed, under threat, stares in confusion instead of leaping headlong into the fight.

This couldn’t have been an easy series to distill into one movie, but even so, the thinness of the plot doesn’t do justice to the characters or the jaw-dropping visuals and design.

2.5 equivalently exchanged burritos

Images: Netflix

 

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