Live-action adaptations of anime can often be seriously disappointing. If you’re a fan of the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST series, you’re probably itching to find out how the new live-action ranks. Thankfully, this adaptation won’t disappoint.

The original FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST manga released in 2001, and it’s been a favorite of many anime fans ever since. The FULLMETAL series has a number of installments, including two movies and two anime. As of December 2017, a live-action adaptation has been added to the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST series.

Thanks to Netflix, the new movie will be available to all fans, old and new alike. Fans are undoubtedly excited to know how well the film portrays the beloved characters and story and if it will help change the landscape for future live-action adaptations. Let’s deconstruct the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST film into its major components and see how it fares when reconstructed, starting with the story.

The Full(Metal) Story

If you’re not familiar with it already, here’s the premise of the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST series: Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, attempt to bring their mother back to life with alchemy. Alchemy is a science that can transmute or transform one object into another so long as it follows the Law of Equivalent Exchange. In alchemy, something can only be created if something of equal value is given.

When the Elric brothers attempt to transmute their mother, they are unable to give something equivalent to her soul. A toll still has to be paid, and as a result, Ed’s loses a leg, and Al loses his entire body. To save his brother, Ed sacrifices his arm and bonds Al’s soul to a nearby suit of armor, but it’s only a temporary fix.

Edward Elric leans against his brother, Alphonse Elric, in an abandoned laboratory.
Brothers Alphonse (left) and Edward (right) Elric comfort each other after a fight. | Image: YouTube

To get their real bodies back, Edward and Alphonse set out to search for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. The Stone has the power to enhance the alchemic ability and override the Law of Equivalent Exchange, but little is known about the Stone’s origin. In order to learn more about it, Ed joins the military as a State Alchemist. Their search leads to the discovery of military secrets and a group of mysterious enemies known as Homunculi. The Homunculi are a group of seven semi-immortal artificial beings who have matching Ouroboros tattoos and strange powers. Each Homunculus is named after one of the seven deadly sins and possesses abilities that coincide with their sin. Here’s where the story of each addition to the FULLMETAL series starts to change.

Transmuting a New Story

The first FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST anime aired in 2003 while the original manga by Hiromu Arakawa was still in the works. Since the manga was unfinished, the 2003 anime wrote its own ending. There’s a lot of differences between the two, but the biggest change in the 2003 anime was the villains. The 2003 anime changed details about the creation of the Homunculi. It even turned some of the manga’s human characters into Homunculi. This affected the ending of the 2003 anime, making it completely different from the manga once it ended in 2010.

In 2009, the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST series received a second anime, called FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD. BROTHERHOOD followed the manga much more closely than the 2003 version. Because of its improved animation and faithfulness to the manga, BROTHERHOOD quickly became a favorite among fans. Most fans consider BROTHERHOOD the official story and the 2003 version of an alternate universe. There’s no love lost for the first anime, though — many fans still consider it their favorite.

So where does the new movie line up? With two different anime series, anyone would be curious to see what new take the movie has to offer. Does it follow the manga like BROTHERHOOD, or does it follow the 2003 anime retelling of the story?

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Changes Made for the Silver Screen

It’s a little bit of both. While the film doesn’t take as many liberties as the 2003 series, it’s also not completely identical to the manga. Which makes sense, because it’s impossible to squish 27 volumes into two short hours. Some of the biggest cuts made were to the characters. Only three Homunculi made an appearance in the film. Fans will also be surprised to hear that major characters such as Scar, Major Armstrong, and even King Bradley are left out. A few of these characters are vital to the original plot, so the choice to cut them was questionable at best.

The order of events in the film is also a bit different. Some scenes occur earlier than expected, but that works out in the film’s favor. The best example of this is the battle between Colonel Mustang and the Homunculus, Lust. If you’re going by the manga, the movie should have ended before the story reached this point. The scene takes place earlier in the film and, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel out of place. It doesn’t take away from the plot, and it makes the movie more enjoyable. Witnessing this scene in its full, blazing glory with real actors is absolutely bone-chilling.

Ed claps his hands together, preparing for a transmutation, while Winry and Alphonse stand behind him in this promotional poster.
Ed shows off some alchemy skills in this promotional poster.

Sadly, not all of the edits worked well for the film. The changes to the plot, such as the removal of the main antagonist, made the story unclear. To make up for the cuts, the filmmakers turned an old side-character into their main antagonist. If you only watched BROTHERHOOD (or if you forgot him as I did), he feels out of place. The new villain seems like an original character the filmmakers conveniently added after writing themselves into a corner.

Getting into Character

Next, we’ll look at some of the main cast. Ryosuke Yamada plays the role of Edward Elric, channeling the young alchemist’s spunk throughout the fast-paced action scenes. Yamada sometimes overacts a bit and falls out of character, which breaks the film’s atmosphere. Even though Yamada’s acting is a little cheesy and overdone in spots, he does an excellent job handling tragedy. In the infamous Nina Tucker scene, Yamada makes you feel Ed’s pain as your own. His dramatic acting in scenes like this fully immerses you in Ed’s world.

The supporting cast also brings the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST world to life with their own takes on familiar characters. Yasuko Matsuyuki embodies Lust’s cunning in a way that leaves you with chills running down your spine. Riza Hawkeye, played by Misako Renbutsu, is another example of excellent portrayal. Her quiet, subtle acting brings a perfectly real life Riza to the silver screen. One of her best moments is a scene where she flawlessly guns down the enemy with a platoon of soldiers at her command. Ed, Lust, and Riza stand out best, but most of the FULLMETAL cast channel their characters well. The only character who feels a little out of place is Winry.

Winry Rockbell provides the brothers with a reminder of their own humanity when they need it most. She gives them that push to keep going when the world seems to crumble around them. Winry still supports them in the movie, but her fiery spirit feels somewhat diminished. In the end, Tsubasa Honda’s acting falls a little flat due to the lack of development in the film’s short length.

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Finally, let’s take a look at what makes the movie visually appealing. The scenery, especially the town of Liore, is reminiscent of both the manga and the two anime. The choice to film in Italy added to the movie’s overall aesthetic and captured the feeling of the times. The dark lighting and color choices create beautiful contrasts that breathe life into the film.

The best part of the movie is the excellent use of CG. Live-action adaptations generally have low-quality CG effects, but this is where FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST shines. There are only a few small moments where Ed’s alchemy looks a bit cartoonish. It’s easy to see that the CG had a lot of care put into it. Alphonse’s armor is especially fluid and lifelike in its movement throughout the film. It’s completely CG, but it’s so realistic that you might think there’s a human actor under all that metal.

But the most notable use of CG in the film is with the Homunculus Gluttony. Near the end of the film, there’s a dramatic scene where Gluttony’s “mouth” opens. For just a moment, Gluttony’s glittering teeth are lifelike and horrifying. Then the camera pans out, and Gluttony is waddling penguin-like after some soldiers with his “mouth” wide open. The transition from such a horrifying sight is timed so perfectly it’s hilarious — definitely one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Gluttony grins at the camera in his usual creepy fashion.
“Can I eat them?” – Gluttony | Image:  YouTube

So What’s the Verdict?

Is FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST another B movie to add to the pile of live-action adaptations we’d rather forget? Critics online seem to think so. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 20%. Joshua Meyer from Slashfilm writes, “it feels destined to become one of those bargain-bin features.” On the other hand, Cecilia D’Anastasio from Kotaku writes, “it was never going to replace one of the greatest anime series of all time, but it is a reverent and wildly fun supplement to it,” and I agree. It might pale a little compared to the rest of the FULLMETAL series, but it doesn’t flop like THE LAST AIRBENDER.

The movie had a high bar to surpass in taking on the FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST title, so some bad reviews are no surprise. That said, the film exceeded my expectations. The art direction, especially the CG, is breathtaking and the characters are translated well on screen. Although Yamada’s rough acting can be distracting, the film is extremely immersive. Overall, it’s an excellent real-life transmutation of the story. Its originality brings a breath of fresh air for the series.

I encourage FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST fans to keep an open mind and to let the movie speak for itself. It’s hard to make such a beloved series into one movie that even the most stubborn fans can adore. Despite that, I think this film managed to pull it off. The story might be different, but so is the 2003 series that we know and love. It might not change the consensus on live-action adaptations, but it’s a big step forward. Cheesy overacting and questionable editing choices aside, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is one of the better live-action adaptations out there.

FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST will be available on Netflix on February 19th. Be sure to check it out!

Featured image courtesy of Tumblr.

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