Thursday, April 14, 2011

Anime review: Full Metal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa

Conqueror of Shamballa takes place two years after the conclusion of the 2003 anime series and follows Ed and Al, who have been separated in two different worlds for that duration. Ed sacrificed himself to bring his brother's body back, and in doing so was transported to our world, a place of science as opposed to the alchemy with which Ed is so familiar. Alphonse, on the other hand, was brought back as his ten year-old self, with no memories of the four years he spent with Ed searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Al is determined to bring his brother back from the other side of the gate and has devoted himself entirely to studying alchemy in hopes of one day fulfilling that dream.

The film opens with a flashback to Ed and Al's time together before they were separated, and brings a bit of nostalgia to the film, which - considering the film was released roughly a year after the series concluded - might also help as a refresher of some of the key points of Full Metal Alchemist's story. Whether intentional or not, this also provides a quick crash course for those who might be otherwise unfamiliar with Full Metal Alchemist, and while it can't exactly encompass everything that the series covered, it does convey much of the series' signature charm.

Early on, viewers are shown just how skilled in his Alchemy Alphonse has become. On the other side of the gate, Edward is living with a young and aspiring rocket scientist named Alphons Heiderich. While Edward seems to have made a decent transition to life without alchemy, he does grow frustrated at the fact that Alphons doesn't believe his stories of his home to be anything more than fantasy. As Hoenheim has taken off somewhere, Edward has little to go off on in regards to any attempts to get back through the gate. That is, until he encounters a man who bears a striking resemblance to Fuhrer King Bradley, which eventually leads Edward to get caught up in a conspiracy involving the Thule Society and their dream of reaching another world known to them as Shamballa.

Surprisingly enough, the melding of real people and events from post-World War I Germany into the story of Conqueror of Shamballa doesn't come across as forced or hokey, due in no small part to how indirectly yet closely involved with the political unrest Ed and Alfons Heiderich are. A number of secondary and tertiary characters including Fritz Lang and Hughes play important roles in conveying the political atmosphere and social structure and manage to carry these across quite convincingly. As for main characters, Eckhart is really the only major player who is directly involved with Germany's politics, with Ed only taking up the role of sheltering Noah.

A number of side characters from the original series return and for the most part they play larger roles than I expected. Armstrong and Mustang, along with Havoc and Breda, play key roles not only in regards to their military duties, but also in aiding Al with his goal. Of the state military members, Hawkeye has one of the smallest roles, and although Rose does make an appearance fairly early on in the film, she doesn't play much of an important role in the events of Conqueror of Shamballa. Sheska and Winry, on the other hand, provide some comic relief, the latter lending her talents to aid the Elric brothers and even to adjust Wrath's auto-mail.

The film's pacing is fantastic and despite the fact that a lot is actually covered within the hour and forty-five minute run time, at no point does anything feel rushed. One minor complaint I have with the way the film plays out is that the finale provides a relatively brief epilogue. That said, the final episode of the series set aside nearly half of its twenty-three minute run time for an epilogue, so it isn't terribly surprising or unfitting that the film would spend less time focusing on this.

While I would never accuse the finale of the series as being poor (quite the opposite - I found it to be phenomenal), there were certain subplots left unresolved therein. Most of these loose ends are tied up by the conclusion of Conqueror of Shamballa, and for those few that are not, the film does provide some satisfying elaboration on said situations. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the Homunculi are dealt with in a very logical and overall satisfying manner, and that the characters of Wrath and Envy - both of whom I was overall rather indifferent towards until the final few episodes of the series - played out in a manner that was very interesting and entertaining, while providing some shock value (all without being overdramatized).

The soundtrack plays homage to the 2003 series by bringing back many of the major themes played throughout the series. It also includes a number of new orchestrated pieces that diverge from the stylings of those heard in the series, but remain close enough that they still carry much of the mood of Full Metal Alchemist. The soundtrack manages to fit the film brilliantly, due in no small part to the fact that these two musical styles play off each other much in the same way that the two worlds on either side of the gate relate to one another. In this way, the motif of the film is only made stronger. The art direction Conqueror of Shamballa takes is not particularly different than the anime series, though the animation quality has improved significantly. Shading and lighting effects are much more dramatic and smaller details - such as the layout of the sunken city and the inner-workings of Ed's prosthetic arm - are much more defined. The only point where the animation suffered was during a few scenes involving the suits of armor that Eckhart sends to Ed and Al's home world. During these scenes, the suits of armor are computer-animated, and though they are layered over with some slight cel-shading and probably looked good during their 2005 theatrical debut, they haven't aged as well as the rest of the animation throughout the film.

Considering the buildup she is given early on as a member of the Thule Society, Eckhart is ultimately given only a brief few minutes of action scenes. That is not to say that she is completely forgettable as the film's lead villain, but she doesn't manage to live up to the cleverness of Dante or the capabilities of the Homunculi.

As with the anime series, the English dub voice actor provide stellar performances. While Vic Mignona and Aaron Dismuke steal the spotlight as Ed and Al, the rest of the returning cast does as strong a job as ever in portraying their respective characters. Some returning voice actors were faced with the prospect of portraying a very different take on their character - as is the case with Christian Luci as Wrath - or taking on a different persona entirely - as Ed Blaylock does with his shift from Fuhrer King Bradley to the mellow yet ambitious filmmaker Fritz Lang. In both scenarios, the voice actors deserve major props in taking to these changes so naturally. As for newcomers, John Gremillion fits right in with his brief appearance as Huskisson, while Kelly Manison provides a decent portrayal of Eckhart. That isn't to say that the latter is weak in her performance, but compared to most everyone else she doesn't quite peak at the same level of excellence. This could, however, be more so a result of her character's nature, and to be fair, Manison does a wonderful job of transitioning back and forth between her English and German-spoken lines.

Aside from a few very minor hitches, Conqueror of Shamballa is a more than satisfying conclusion to the storyline of the 2003 anime series. While the film carries a darker mood - similar to the later episodes of the series - there is still some humor sprinkled throughout and the film maintains the signature charm of Full Metal Alchemist, yet the film can be truly emotionally gripping when it matters most. The animation is great, the soundtrack a fantastic combination of sounds new and old, and the stories of the two worlds running simultaneously flows in a near-perfect manner. As the equivalent of End of Evangelion to Neon Genesis Evangelion, I feel few viewers will consider Conqueror of Shamballa nearly as controversial in its role as a secondary ending to the epic tale of the Elric brothers.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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