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So, About That Live-Action Fullmetal Alchemist Movie on Netflix

3.5 out of 5 metallic brothers.

full metal alchemist

[Spoilers for the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist]

The long-running saga of Fullmetal Alchemist, told in manga and anime, is one of the best-known properties of its kind, with ardent fans who have loved it for whole decades. It was always going to be difficult to condense such a vast and complicated world into two hours, not to mention the nearly 100% failure rate of anime-to-live movie adaptations. Can this movie please the faithful and newcomers alike?

Fullmetal Alchemist frequently tops polls as the most popular anime(s) of all time, so it’s fair to say director Fumihiko Sori had quite the project to undertake in bringing it to the big screen. I watched the movie last night and enjoyed it—but I’m very far from a Fullmetal Alchemist purist (more of a dabbler), and the mix of opinion where the movie’s concerned is already stark.

There are only 5 critic reviews at current on Rotten Tomatoes, and they aren’t promising on their own. The movie has a 20% rating from that handful of critics. However, the fan rating from 210 people is a solid 72%. There’s clearly a disparity between what critics and viewers see when they take a look at Fullmetal Alchemist.

Fullmetal Alchemist behaves less like cinema than cosplay on a cinema budget,” sniffs the Daily Telegraph, while Screen International says, more reasonably, “There’s plenty to work with, but it rushes between emotional speeches and showdowns.” (It’s true that the film has more than its fair amount of exposition, and tangled plot points that left me saying, “What?” out loud.) IGN concludes, succinctly, “Fullmetal Alchemist has some good things going for it, but needs to fix the leaks and sputtering in the narrative’s engine.”

fullmetal alchemist anime

If you’re new to FullMetal Alchemist, the central plot is set up in the movie’s first few minutes. In a fictional European country where alchemy is an advanced form of science, brothers Edward (Ryosuke Yamada) and Alphonse (Atom Mizuishi) learn the art in an attempt to bring their mother back from the dead, but their plan goes awry (to put it mildly).

Years later, as we meet a grown-up Ed, now an advanced and highly skilled alchemist, the results from that catastrophic attempt at human transmutation are seen: Ed lost an arm and a leg, replaced with metal limbs, and Al lost his entire body. Ed managed to save his brother’s soul by binding it to a massive suit of armor, a feat of special effects that the movie pulls off well. Now Ed is on a quest for the fabled Philosopher’s stone in his ceaseless pursuit to restore Al’s proper body.

Not only does Al’s armored body look every inch like the animated Al, but the effects are good enough that there were several times that I forgot we were dealing with CGI and really looked at that suit of armor as the wounded and disembodied Al. Many other essential characters are here, looking picture-perfect in their actorly incarnations—Winry, Roy Mustang, Maes Hughes, Maria Ross, the Homunculi, Tucker and more. (Yes, Nina and Alexander, too. And yes, the movie goes there.)

fullmetal alchemist

But these characters aren’t embodied without significant problems that need to be called out. As IGN highlights:

It doesn’t bode well for feminists that Winry Rockbell (played by Tsubasa Honda) – the brothers’ childhood friend and ace metalsmith – is reduced to that of typical helpmate instead of the fierce individual in the original manga. And Yasuko Matsuyuki as Lust is pretty much a stereotypical evil hottie with extending claws and CG-enhanced cleavage.

Yuppppp. Not only are these choices for the female characters hugely disappointing, but the casting, particularly for Ed, who has to carry a lot of this movie on his shoulders, doesn’t exactly feel award-winning. (Although Dean Fujioka as Roy Mustang wins every award from me.)

fullmetal alchemist

Where this version really won me over is with its compelling effects and worldbuilding. It’s hard to translate the madcap randomness and outrageousness of anime action into, well, real life, but Sori gives it a spirited go. Pillars crash through the walls from nowhere and walls rise up from the ground, Colonel Mustang can snap and set a lot of things on fire with ease, and even when the effects are a little silly rather than scary—a certain scene of army-building towards the end—it’s still fun to watch. Everything is appropriately over-the-top.

After the disastrous recent efforts to translate popular anime to the big screen like Avatar and Ghost in the ShellFullmetal Alchemist is very far from a disaster, but it’s a bit too confusing to be brilliant. It can, however, be not-boring and touching and an engaging way to pass an evening. The scenes of Ed at the Gate of Truth alone were enough to earn this movie another .5 of a metallic brother from me.

Crucially, Fullmetal Alchemist solves the problem of whitewashing anime when it hits the big screen easily and smoothly, showing just how unnecessary whitewashed casting has been in the past. The actors are Japanese, the language is Japanese, and the setting in the backdrop can still be a fantasy Europe. When a character is blond—like Ed—they simply have blond hair. No muss, no fuss.

I think it’s possible that people entirely new to Fullmetal Alchemist might enjoy the live-action take more than longtime fans. It’s hard not to dwell on everything that’s being left out or condensed in the plot when you know how long and multilayered the history is, but those approaching with fresh eyes will find a world full of magic, strange creatures, and a military conspiracy to be untangled.

Existing fans should still be tickled to see this world and its inhabitants come to life so vividly, even if they’re just going to go online to tear each scene apart and argue what the filmmakers got right or wrong here. The debate is already raging, and since the movie very much leaves open the option for a sequel, we might be talking about this for a long time.

Have you seen the movie yet? What did you think?

(images: Netflix)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.