Movie: Adaptations of popular works are fairly common these days. It's not so much that there are no new ideas out there (which has been the case for centuries) but that writers and directors tend to stick with common themes that work. Some of the time, the modernization of a story works and other times it's really lame, like Beningi's Pinocchio. What usually makes the difference is the director's vision, which is why certain names enter pop culture conversations with an air of trepidation. One such name is Carl Macek. Mr. Macek's biggest claim to fame is that he was one of the pioneers in bringing anime over to the USA. Depending on whom you talk to, the guy is either a grand master of promotion or a devil that destroys art, with very little common ground. His former company, Harmony Gold, was responsible for bringing over a little series known as Robotech, something of a mish-mash of three separate series that was combined, altered in serious ways, and released as a single series to the American market. Fans of the original series, primarily Macross, railed for years (and are still doing so) at how the anti-war, pro-peace message of the original was converted to a cheerleader for war style release. I like both versions but nods go to the original as the artistic endeavor that started it all (and it was much better in many ways). Mr. Macek did not stop with the single series though. He also released other titles, including a little movie now known as Once Upon A Time.
The movie was originally titled Windaria and the box cover freely admits that this version is "freely adapted" from the original, using a different script and trimming some of the more violent and adult oriented material to make it more marketable in the USA. The original was directed by Kunohiko Yuyama (a well known director in anime circles) and based on a novel by Keisuke Fujikawa with this release being narrated by Russell Johnson (The Professor from Gilligan's Island). It started off by the lead, Alan, looking back on a long life, trying to cleanse his sins of how he betrayed his people, with dire costs.
Life was simple in the kingdom of Lunaria; the peasants were mostly farmers and everyone got along with one another in their feudal society. The king is a decent guy and his daughter a hotty. Alan sells produce with his girlfriend when they visit the market and life is peaceful for all. The only controversy centers on how the kingdom rations water to those kingdoms in the valley, including the Shadowlands, a society that is more advanced technologically but has plans on expansion that worry the Lunarians. The king of the Shadowlands, Drako, sends out spies and saboteurs, to open the floodgates, nearly causing a tragedy for the Lunarians. His son, Rolland, and Veronica are in love and as the cold war heats up, their desires are lost to the larger events on the horizon.
Alan, the protagonist, is drawn into the conflict when he's offered a lot of material wealth for acting as a messenger. Eager to skip living his life out as a dirt farmer, he agrees but soon finds the conditions of employment somewhat different than he initially agreed to. In short, he is called upon to betray his kingdom in exchange for great wealth, the lure of which is irresistible. He soon finds that the values he has lived with for his entire life to be more than just some archaic code, and sets to restore the balance before he loses everything to his greed.
Okay, aside from the fact that I'd much rather have the original, with the original soundtrack and none of the footage cut, I liked this one enough to rate it as a Rent It. Normally, I'd be telling you to skip it unless a restored version came available but the message of the story and anime style was good enough to overlook the relatively minor changes while we all wait for the "real" version" to be released. There were moments where the drawing was disproportionate (anime drawn by hand is not always consistent but this had a lot of variation). Check it out if you'd like a thoughtful look at what amounts to a parable about progress at the expense of what's important in life.
Picture: The picture was presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio full frame color that it was released in. There were a lot of scratches on the print and the colors were not always consistent but it looked pretty good for an anime release from nearly twenty years ago. The grain was moderate in the darker scenes and the video noise usually not a problem. I didn't see any compression artifacts while watching it.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital with a choice of either and English or Spanish track. The original Japanese track was not available on the DVD and that's a shame because all accounts list it as being superior in many ways. The vocals were a bit hollow at times and some of the mix was off but the music and effects were pretty good for such an early effort (it was made in the mid 1980's).
Extras: The only extras included were some trailers and a paper insert with no information about the movie.
Final Thoughts: I liked this one but still pine for the original release. Now that ADV is such a powerhouse in the world of anime, I don't see why it can't obtain the rights to it and even add some solid extras in an effort to restore what amounts to a very popular story in anime. As far as Mr. Macek is concerned, I'm glad he had the foresight to help start the anime revolution here but I wish he would've exercised a lighter touch with the releases he altered. In any case, he didn't appear to hack this one up as has been alleged so rent it to make sure you're okay with this version before buying it.
Check out DVDTalk's Top Anime of 2003 for more hints on good anime to watch.