In the animation world, Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki has staked out his own inimitable territory, away from both the unsavory excesses of his anime counterparts and the crass commercial machinery seizing Disney and its imitators. A box-office phenomenon in its native country, Miyazaki's epic, visually sumptuous Princess Mononoke may come as a shock to fans used to the quirky, idiosyncratic comic touches abundant in his My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. While the change in scale allows him to expand his vision to include capital-letter themes and strikingly graphic panoramas, he loses much of the coherency and offbeat charm that set him apart in the first place. Featuring a surprisingly conservative translation by Neil Gaiman and a merely passable cast of celebrity voice talent, this version does little to clear up Miyazaki's muddled eco-allegory, but it should still deliver American neophytes to his lush, meticulously rendered drawing style. A hero's mythical journey begins when Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a prince in feudal Japan, is infected by a giant-boar-turned-demon-monster and sets out to find the evil source responsible. His adventures lead him to Iron Town, an industrial fortress presided over by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), which strips the forest of its vital resources in order to manufacture weapons. This draws the wrath of the wolf gods and the mysterious title character (Claire Danes), leading to a literal battle between man and nature. Miyazaki's message leaves little to the imagination, but his animation offers plenty of sustenance, especially when he silences the expository dialogue and lets his rapturous images speak for themselves. Highlighted by a sparkling, translucent Forest Spirit that only emerges at night, tiny skeletal creatures with clicking swivel-heads, and a truly magical denouement, Princess Mononoke is still a formidable achievement, if not a resounding success.
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