There’s a hard, hard beauty to animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s hugely ambitious (and in Japan, hugely successful) epic. Princess Mononoke is about no less than the passing of mankind from pagan beliefs into a complex, ruinous modernity. You don’t need to be a scholar of feudal Japan to dig this, though: The characters are straight out of the Joseph Campbell playbook, from questing hero Ashitaka (the voice of Billy Crudup) to feral princess San (Claire Danes) to trickster monk Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) to calculating Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). And the vast landscape through which they journey — of clashing battles, giant animal gods, and all-powerful forest spirits — is a fitting stage for archetypes.
This is unquestionably not one for the kiddies — but you’ll know that in the first five minutes, when the worm-eaten boar demon crashes out of the forest. Anyone else with a taste for sheer wonder (and a willingness to overlook flat line readings from the miscast Danes and Thornton) will be in heaven. A windswept pinnacle of its art, Princess Mononoke has the effect of making the average Disney film look like just another toy story. A