This article is a review of Netflix’s live-action film adaptation of the anime and shounen manga FullMetal Alchemist. A lot of anime fans are buzzing over the movie. Is the hype real? We watched to found out.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Disclaimer: This article is also told from a standpoint of someone new to the series.
The story begins with a young Edward Elric and his brother Alphonse showing off their transmutated (transmutated means forged from alchemy) toys to their mother, Trisha. Trisha suddenly collapses and dies shortly after the boys run off again to play.
After Trisha’s death, Ed is overcome with loneliness and longing. He suggests using alchemy to Al in order bring her back to life as a Homonculus, or an artificial human. Al is initially reluctant because of the unethical nature of the act but eventually gives in to Ed’s plan. Unfortunately, the transmutation goes horribly wrong, ruining their home completely and separating Ed from Al.
Years pass and Ed is now known as the Fullmetal Alchemist, a popular state alchemist who is able to transmutate without using a transmutation circle. Al’s body is nowhere to be found but his soul is kept alive inside a metal robot. The brothers are now on a quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary, mythical and indestructible material that would help transmutate Al’s body back to life, as well as Ed’s now-missing limbs. As they set out on their mission, three evil homunculi (Lust, Envy, and Gluttony) also set out to stop them from discovering the Philosopher’s Stone.
Their quest leads them to reunite with their old friends: Winry the repairwoman, Colonel Hughes, and the cynical flame alchemist and military officer Colonel Mustang. They also meet the wise and amiable General Nakamura; Shou Tucker, an evil and insane alchemist who uses his loved ones to bring transmutated animals to life; and Dr. Marcoh who reveals to them secrets about the Philosophers’ Stone. As the Elric brothers get closer to the Philosopher’s Stone, the evil homunculi become mo-re paranoid, killing off allies one by one, threatening the brothers each chance they get and even pitting them against one another at some point. Ed eventually gets to lay his hands on the Philosopher’s Stone – but before, he learns the harrowing truths about it. Will this discovery bring an end to their quest? Or will it signal the start of a new one?
One of the biggest challenges in making live-action film adaptations of literary or animated works is how to make it actually work, not just for fans but for the general viewing public. For Fullmetal Alchemist’s creators, this was clearly a difficult thing to do. The film visibly crammed a lot of details, leaving the audience with a lot of questions. The background narrative was severely lacking. Who created the Homunculi and why are they trying to stop Ed and Al from getting close to the Philosopher’s Stone? What’s Ed and Colonel Hughes’ friendship history? Their storytelling was also very spotty, jumping from one scene to another, and generally bringing confusion. But the film wasn’t entirely bad as they were able to explain other things well. First, it gave a pretty meaty background on the “Truth” spirit and the Law of Equivalent Exchange, allowing the audience to understand the depth and consequence of the brothers Elric’s quest. It was able to fully communicate the reasons for Tucker’s twisted thinking, and most importantly, the evil behind the Philosopher’s Stone. It also tells us that anything in excess is fatal.
Aside from Ed and Al, everyone seems to lack character depth. They were clearly portrayed as supporting characters, out to support Ed and Al in everything they do with little criticism. At some point, everyone seemed to act cartoonish rather than endearing and animated. They seemed more like caricatures rather than humans. Ryosuke Yamada portrayed Ed’s passion, dedication and love for Al with so much heart. Yamada was able to make audiences fully understand and empathize with Ed, even if his plans were tinged with craziness and danger. Atomu Mizuishi beautifully gives life to Alphonse, who is portrayed as gentle, warm, and ironically more human than the other actual humans in the story.
The live-action Fullmetal Alchemist film might delight long-time fans but not help the series gain new ones. It successfully introduces non-fans and newbies to the core of the original story but fails to pique interest for them to learn more due to their lack of a good background narrative, cluttered storytelling, and shallow characterization. Here’s to hoping that they make a better sequel that will help them gain a new legion of fans.