Film Review by David Cirone
The feature film adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist has just dropped on Netflix. It packs some cool visuals, brings an impressive list of Japanese actors to project, and carries a knockout theme song by J-Pop songstress Misia. But for a story with the central theme of uniting a soul with a shiny, hollow shell, you’d think the producers would be wary enough to sidestep the predictable irony of delivering a surface-only adaptation.
Young brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric (sons of a barely-mentioned famous alchemist) attempt one of their missing father’s hidden spells to bring back their deceased mother. When the incantation goes drastically wrong, Alphonse’s body is lost and his soul now survives in an empty suit of armor. Elric loses his arm and leg in the process, but together they continue their studies of alchemy in search of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone which will allow Alphonse to reunite with his true physical form.
There’s more than enough story in the Fullmetal Alchemist world to fill the two hours’ running time, but the story’s pacing is drastically uneven and often just too carefully staged. There’s just way too much world-building in the first half of the film, and while director Fumihiko Sori shows respect for Hiromu Arakawa’s original work, it comes at the expense of urgency and clarity.
Production and costume design find the right mix between anime aesthetic and realism, but some unfortunately rubbery CGI weakens key dramatic moments. (The distracting, ever-changing shades of Edward’s blond hair don’t help, either.) The Victorian Europe setting — full of brick roads, steam engines, and fabulous topcoats — works consistently, and Edward’s out of body visits to the Gate of Truth are a chilling highlight.
Yasuko Matsuyuki is deliciously malevolent (but underused) as villainess Lust. Ryuta Sato brings intelligence and warmth to his portrayal of Captain Hughes, and Yo Oizumi is tragically sympathetic as the demented alchemist Shou Tucker descends into madness.
Supporting players Tsubasa Honda as Winry Rockbell and Dean Fujioka as Roy Mustang don’t fare as well, and the simple script holds them back from making an impression. Jun Kunimura also pops ups for a few moments, but even his super-cool presence is just flattened.
Late-game revelations about the Philosopher’s Stone lack the intended punch, and there’s a huge disconnect between Elric’s dramatic response and the expositional info-dump that we have to digest in a hurry to get to the climax.
Ryosuke Yamada (Hey!Say!Jump!) gives his all as Edward Elric, but the ever-simmering anger and guilt required for us to really empathize with him is missing. Edward is hyper-focused, emotionally driven towards a near impossible goal, and that’s what makes him worth our time. A little more of that passion in the mix, and Fullmetal Alchemist might have been something special.
Fullmetal Alchemist is now streaming in Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80223731