©2017 Hiromu Arakawa/SQUARE ENIX ©2017 “FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST” Film Partners

Today as part of the Tokyo International Film Festival, members of the press got to see an early screening of the upcoming Fullmetal Alchemist live-action movie. And as far as live-action adaptations of anime go, it is certainly on the better end of the spectrum.

Set in a world much like our own in the early twentieth century, the biggest difference comes from the existence of alchemy. By drawing an alchemic circle, it is possible to transmute materials from one shape into another—e.g., turning a group of paving stones into a statue of the same mass and same basic mineral composition. However, when an alchemist attempts to transmute something without the necessary components, things go wildly out of control as the equation tries to balance itself—taking anything it can in the attempt.

Fullmetal Alchemist follows two boys who attempted the ultimate taboo after the death of their mother: to create a human using alchemy (their mother). And while the two were able to gather the basic components of a human body, they neglected to realize the value of the human soul. The resulting accident left one brother, Ed, missing an arm and a leg. The other, Al, was left bodiless—his soul attached to a suit of armor. Now, years later, the two seek the mythical Philosopher’s Stone—the one object that will allow them to bypass the law of equivalent trade and get back what they lost.

©2017 Hiromu Arakawa/SQUARE ENIX ©2017 “FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST” Film Partners

In its two-hour runtime, the film covers roughly the first 10 episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood—or the first 26 episodes of the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime, if you prefer. Thus, in addition to Ed and Al, there are plenty in the way of recognizable faces—from Roy Mustang, Riza Hawkeye, and Maes Hughes to Lust, Father Cornello, and Shou Tucker. However, certain others, like the enigmatic Scar or the always muscular Alex Louis Armstrong are conspicuously absent.

It’s here that we hit the first major potential roadblock any film adapted from another source. If you try to change nothing and hit every single possible plot point, you come off with a rushed, exposition-filled mess like the live-action The Last Airbender movie. On the other hand, change too much and you get something nearly unrecognizable like Dragonball Evolution.

©2017 Hiromu Arakawa/SQUARE ENIX ©2017 “FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST” Film Partners

But every so often, a film gets it right in the strike zone—and for the most part, Fullmetal Alchemist is one of these. There are lots of little changes and abridgements—like the removal of the aforementioned Scar—that simplify the plot so that a story several hours long fits in a nice, little, hundred-and-twenty minute package. Moreover, these changes often open up the story to new possibilities that give the film it’s own unique surprises.

Likewise, a lot of the plot points that set up future developments are ignored in this film in order to make the movie feel completely stand alone. Sure, there could be more movies in the future (and they would connect just fine), but if there never are, this film won’t be the worse for it.

Fullmetal Alchemist feels like a complete adventure in its own right—and that’s not just because of the story beats adapted from the anime and manga. It looks like you’d expect Fullmetal Alchemist to look. Shot largely in Italy, the architecture is a perfect fit for the world we see in the anime. But where it really shines visually is in the costumes.

Costumes seen in anime and manga often look a bit silly when put in a live-action film—they look more like cosplay than clothes a normal person would wear in the living, breathing world we see on the screen. Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t fall into this trap. The military uniforms are detailed to the point that they look like something you can imagine a real soldier wearing. Matching this, Ed’s clothes under his jacket also appear to be a uniform of similar design—though unbuttoned and in black. The villains likewise look great with extra details added to their costumes to make them look more real as well.  

Most surprising is how good Al—basically a giant suit of CG animated armor—looks. On one hand, it looks nearly identical to what we see in the anime. On the other, the armor has dents and reflections that leave it looking like something well used. People interact with it so naturally, it’s hard to tell whether it’s CG or a prop much of the time.

©2017 Hiromu Arakawa/SQUARE ENIX ©2017 “FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST” Film Partners

Unfortunately, the rest of the CG effects leave much to be desired. While looking on par with most modern Japanese films, it’s apparent at a single glance that these aren’t ILM level effects like you’d see in a Hollywood blockbuster. Outside of Al’s armor, it’s always strikingly obvious what is CG and what is not. This, along with the (not surprisingly) subpar performances of the child actors in the film are the only real blemishes on an otherwise solid adaptation.

And make no mistake, that’s what this film is: a solid adaptation of one of the most popular anime of the past two decades. It brings the characters into the real world in both personality and looks while at the same time changing the story up just enough to let it thrive in this new medium. Add to this a few plot twists and turns you might not expect and you have a film that’s worth a watch for any fan of the anime or manga.

A Look inside Japan’s New Fullmetal Alchemist Exhibit

The live-action Fullmetal Alchemist film will be released in Japanese theaters on December 1, 2017. The film will premiere in the US at Anime NYC on November 19, 2017.

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