As you might expect, I approached Netflix’s live-action version of Fullmetal Alchemist with some trepidation. Sure, it’s far from my favorite anime, but a guy can worry. After all, there’s not exactly a stellar track record for live-action versions of anime. Well, the American ones, anyhow. Fortunately, this adaptation was handled entirely in Japan, so maybe there was a chance this would be good?
The Short Breakdown
Without going far into spoilers, this adaptation goes for a Herculean task: the entire movie covers roughly 60% of the main plot of the manga (or the second FMA anime, Brotherhood, if you’ve seen that). It sounds like an impossible recipe for disaster, and it certainly gets close. As a newcomer to the world, I think I’d be a little overwhelmed by it all. After all, the show is 64 episodes, so that’s about 27 hours of footage!
The solution this movie found was to very selectively crunch some things down and streamline them. While plenty of scenes get to play out in full, lots of plot elements are deftly combined, which lets the film get away with leaving some subplots at the door. One particular scene towards the end drew on elements from three different scenes in the show! I was honestly very impressed.
That said, it’s not perfect. The movie loses a lot of breathing room, and although there’s some lovely character scenes, some powerful moments in the original lose their huge impact, since they don’t have the freight-train momentum of 30+ episodes behind them. It’s not bad for a movie, but it’s definitely going to be a little jarring for series fans.
If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that this movie is lavish compared to other Japanese features. Costumes are lovingly modeled after the designs in the show (I’m kinda in love with Riza Hawkeye’s uniform), the scenery is gorgeously evocative of Central Europe (the series is set in a steampunkish not-Germany), and there’s some delightful CGI monstrosities for the protagonists to brawl with.
At times, this dedication to the source material is campy. Ed looks pretty silly in an obviously fake yellow wig, and I’m not sure that Hughes absolutely had to have that hair curl. At the same time, this movie is so very earnest about its dorkiness that I didn’t really mind. It’s a lively romp through familiar stories, and it’s quite lovable for that. It’s just pure joy to watch these characters in the flesh–did I mention that the actors playing Ed and Winry have adorable chemistry?
It’s fun enough that I can almost forgive them for forgetting Armstrong.
Yeah, there’s actually a sizeable list of familiar characters missing from this version of the story. If you’re hoping for the Armstrong clan, most of Mustang’s subordinates, any homunculus who isn’t Lust/Gluttony/Envy, some complicated Scar action (Ishbal itself only gets a couple mentions), or any of the characters exclusive to Brotherhood/the manga, well, hopefully you won’t be as disappointed now that I warned you. The core story we get is good, but there’s holes you can feel if you’re looking for a facsimile.
What is an Adaptation?
I’ll raise this question multiple times, because I’ve got a few posts slated to cover different live-action anime adaptations, and all of them have different answers. So, the question here is: what does the Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation accomplish, and what does it add to the story?
The most obvious benefit here is that it hits the most salient points of the series while also providing a coherent story. It’s concise, so if you don’t have the time to watch sixty-odd half-hour anime episodes, you can watch this and get somewhat of an idea what the hype is about. It’s also live-action, just in case you have a hangup about animation. That said, you will absolutely miss the power of the entire story, and given that it’s drawing from Brotherhood, you’ll also miss an involved plot and a delightful cast of characters.
The real benefit here is for nostalgia. No matter which version of the anime you watched (or if you just read the manga), you’ll get a kick out of the familiar faces doing mostly-familiar things. Unless you’re one of the purists who found Lord of the Rings unwatchable. I won’t judge. It’s largely a movie for fans, with the side benefit of being fairly enjoyable for non-fans. Plus, if you only saw the first anime, you’ll get glimpses of the alternate take on the story. Either way, it was a fun watch, and a worthwhile use of my time.
Content Advisory: sometimes bloody violence (also including death via immolation), mild body horror, violence against a child, minor male nudity