If there’s one medium that rivals video games for bad live action adaptations, it’s anime. As it stands they tend to run from forgettable (Ghost in the Shell) to flat out awful (Dragonball Evolution). At this point, any word of an adaptation tends to be met with cynicism but studios keep trying and if effort counts for anything, Fullmetal Alchemist deserves a little credit even if it ultimately falls short of its ambitions.
Out now on Netflix, Fullmetal Alchemist roughly follows the same story as the highly regarded anime, itself based on Hiromu Arakawa’s award winning manga. The film is set in an early industrialised fantasy world where alchemy is a legitimate science and used to perform acts similar to magic. Two young brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, attempt to use alchemy to resurrect their dead mother, a forbidden act that goes horribly wrong and costs Edward an arm and a leg and Al his entire body. In an effort to save his brother, Edward uses alchemy to bond Alphonse’s soul to a giant suit of armour, confining him to a hollow metal body. Flash forward to a few years later and Ed and Al have become military alchemists and are engaged in a quest to find a philosopher’s stone, a powerful object that might grant them the ability to get Al’s body back.
For the first thirty minutes of Fullmetal Alchemist’s running time, all of the hallmarks of a bad anime adaptation are present and accounted for: bad acting, poor CGI and weirdly placed exposition. It’s rough going. After the clumsy introductions are done, the movie improves dramatically, though it does stall a little in its final act. Part of what it gets right is sticking very closely to its source material which is very solid to begin with. Fans of the anime and manga will appreciate the way the film nails iconic scenes from the original. The world of Fullmetal Alchemist is somewhat whimsical and brightly coloured but it has some very dark themes at its core and the movie never shies away from these which works out to its benefit. Based on such a large and sprawling story, the film also does well to condense so much of its plot into a two and a half hour running time but there are still issues with its structure. Even with its condensed cast of characters, the film barrels along at a breakneck pace and sometimes feels confused.
Perhaps the film’s biggest issue is its central casting. Ryosuke Yamada delivers an uneven performance as Edward, struggling to find any middle ground between flat and over the top. As the main character, Ed dances a line between guilt and determination, and though he comes close at times, Yamada never quite manages to nail it. The supporting cast fare much better, filled with veteran Japanese actors delivering solid performances, most notably Dean Fujioka as Roy Mustang and Yasuko Matsuyuki as the villainous Lust. The movie is immediately much more engaging whenever it shifts its focus to its supporting players, almost as though there is a much better movie lurking somewhere beneath the surface.
Fullmetal Alchemist also struggles at times with its visual effects. The action scenes are largely CG based and the visual effects can be patchy, leading to some unintentionally funny moments. The one exception to this is Alphonse, who as a fully animated suit of armour, remains consistently impressive. For all its struggles with visual effects, the film does manage to get its overall look exactly right. Full of attention to detail and vivid colours, from the bright blue uniforms of the military to Ed’s signature red cloak, the film looks great and makes its world look suitably fantastic.
Ultimately, Fullmetal Alchemist is an entertaining but forgettable live action adaptation of a classic anime. Fans of the source material will find a lot to enjoy but people unfamiliar with the series will have a bit more difficulty overlooking the film’s flaws and structural issues. It demonstrates some great world building and when everything falls into place, the film works really well. In the end though, it’s just a little too uneven to stand on its own.
Review by Matt Russell