I think it goes without saying that most animated films based off of long running properties often times fall flat on their face. If the source material is an ongoing series, the film can't take too many chances lest it screw up the canon continuity. On the flip side of this, even if the source material has long been completed, the production team has to be extremely careful with how they tackle the characters so as to not leave a bad taste in fans' mouths. An easy way to get around this seems to be simply doing a recap film or telling an alternate story altogether, thus freeing up the filmmakers to do whatever craziness they want. The problem with that is the characters tend to not feel like themselves, meaning the emotional attachment to the story being told isn't as strong as it could be.
It also doesn't help that not every franchise has a world developed well enough to make a random adventure all that interesting; the early Naruto films are especially guilty of this. Franchise films typically fall back on bringing in a film-only character (often a child), who gets very little actual development but still seems to steal the spotlight anyway.
It's a fine juggling act that more than often doesn't work, which is probably why I came away from Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos so surprised.
It's actually good. I know, I'm still in a state of disbelief too.
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos (DVD)
The Elric brothers are sent to the strange Table City, located on the western border of Amestris in search of a fugitive alchemist named Melvin Voyager. What they find are the Milos, a proud people on the verge of a revolution to secure freedom and independence from their oppressors. At the head of this movement is a young woman named Julia Crichton, who watched both her parents and brother get savagely murdered when she was only a child. Caught in the middle of this conflict, the Elric brothers begin to realize that there is far more at stake than anybody could have ever imagined.
Star of Milos grabbed me early on during the opening scenes that place us with the new character, Julia, as she experiences the tragedies in her childhood that would shape her personality and cause. Much more than many film-only characters, I sympathized with her almost immediately because the filmmakers made her the first person you really ever see onscreen. Her growth as a character is as much the core of the story as is the Elric brothers' attempts to solve the mystery the film presents. This might sound uninteresting, but the writers succeed in creating a character that works effectively when juxtaposed to Ed and Al; in many ways she's seeking the same things that they once did. It also helps that as a female character, Julia is strong and relatively independent. In the behind the scenes feature included on the 2nd disc, the filmmakers talk about how they didn't want her to be a superwoman, but they also didn't want her to be incapable of taking action. The middle ground they took works well, creating a flawed but willful character that you want to root for. It's much easier to believe that the Elric brothers would take a liking to her because of that simple detail.
At the end of the day though, you're not coming into this movie to enjoy a brand new character; you're here to see Ed and Al solve some mysteries, kick some ass and go on an adventure. In that respect, Star of Milos succeeds, showcasing the brothers at their finest. While it's certainly possible to anticipate some of the crazy twists and turns the story takes, mystery-fiction author Yuichi Shinbo does a great job of dropping red herrings and keeping things interesting by turning the story on its head. The end result is a story that feels substantial and gives the Elric brothers a real challenge. The location, made specifically for the film, is believable within the FMA world. While I'm not at all claiming that Star of Milos is anywhere near as good a movie, I found myself reminded of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro in that it doesn't feel like a throw away production but rather a grand adventure. Interestingly, the crew cite the Miyazaki film as one of their inspirations going into production.
Star of Milos feels like a different beast from its predecessors because most of the staff that worked on it were new to the franchise. Director Kazuya Murata was brought in for the skill he exhibited when working on the original Eureka 7. Musically the film was handed to Taro Iwashiro, a composer who's work is almost exclusively limited to live action dramas and films. Even cinematographer Yoshiyuki Takei came from a background consisting of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Wolf's Rain and several other popular properties that experimented with camera work. When all this fresh blood together, you get a version of Fullmetal Alchemist that still feels like FMA, but also feels a little bit more exotic and new.
This leads me to my next point which will probably prove to be a point of contention among viewers; the art/animation style. For the record, Star of Milos has some positively amazing action sequences with choreography that will undoubtedly make FMA fans squeal with glee. However this big budget fluidity comes with a price; character art is inconsistent during these sequences and could probably be described as shaky. This is not a trade off that I have a problem with because it allows characters to move with the sort of life and believability that draws you into their actions. I'm reminded of the art style from the One Piece film, Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island, which used a shaky style that allowed for some incredibly fluid animation. Some people aren't going to be fans of the technique, but I really dig it.
At the end of the day though, this is a stand-alone adventure that takes place before the end of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. You're not going to see any kind of real development for Ed and Al, and if you're coming in to see one of your favorite secondary characters, you should probably temper your expectations. The focus here is primarily on the Elric brothers and Julia, which admittedly helps the film stay focused.
if you take the dive and grab Star of Milos on DVD or BD, you're getting a very solid package for your money. The film is on the first disc along with a feature length commentary hosted by Mike McFarland with members of the English cast. The second disc has a fantastic behind the scenes feature led by Romi Park (Ed) and Rie Kugimiya (Al), that explores every element of the film's production. It's a little bit dry, but if you've ever been interested in the creative process behind working on an animated film in Japan, this will no doubt be of interest. The rest of the extras are rounded out by some trailers for the film and other Funimation licenses. It's nice to get a two disc anime release with a substantial set of extra features.
Of course the film comes with both Japanese and English language dubs, which in my opinion means you have two quality audio tracks you can listen to. At this point most of the FMA cast has settled into their respective roles so if you've stuck with it up until now, you'll enjoy what Star of Milos has to offer. Likewise, the Japanese dub is everything you probably expect it to be, with the awesome addition of Maaya Sakamoto as Julia.
I think Fullmetal Alchemist, both manga and anime, ended spectacularly well. Hiromu Arakawa was given the time and space necessary to end the manga on her own terms, which really does make all the difference. I certainly wasn't excited about a random stand-alone film, given the track record for these kinds of things. Yet unexpectedly, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos surprised and entertained me for its entire duration. FMA may be done, but at the very least we'll always have adventures like this to go back to.
8.0 - Great. The Sacred Star of Milos succeeds in telling a gripping story, giving fans one last chance to see the Elric brothers do what they do best.
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