This review contains some spoilers about the end of the series due to the fact that they are integral to the movie's plot.
Fullmetal Alchemist was one of the most important anime to come along in recent years. It quickly became my favorite show because it presented a unique story, had interesting characters, and real emotion in ways that few shows could ever hope to achieve. Through thirteen volumes I sat enthralled and in case you are counting that's 51 episodes that never skipped a beat. Due to this success I wasn't surprised at all when I heard that a movie was being released.
Earlier this year we received Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa on DVD. I knew all along that a special edition was in the works so biting the bullet for the relatively barebones edition didn't seem to make sense for real fans. Now that the definitive edition has been released though; was it worth the wait? I guess it really depends how in love you are with the series. The first disc in this Special Edition is essentially a reprint of the prior release right down to the menus and special features. The only difference is that the disc now says "Special Edition" and "Disc One" on the front; everything else is the same. That's kind of a little tacky, but as far as the film itself is concerned, it is nothing short of amazing.
The Conqueror of Shamballa the film takes place two years after the series ended. It's 1923 and Edward Elric is living in Munich, Germany with Alphonse (not the Al we know) and studying the possibilities of rocket propulsion. He still dreams about getting back home to the other side of the Gate where his friends and brother are. Naturally since he can't use Alchemy in our reality that task is proving to be exceedingly difficult.
As you grow accustomed to Ed's new surroundings you'll recognize several faces from the show. Since the alchemic world (Amestris) and ours are parallel to each other and separated by the Gate there are striking similarities between the two. Hughes is in Munich and alive, King Bradley is present and accounted for, some of Greed's chimeras are around, and there is even a brief appearance by Scar and Lust. Of course neither of these characters knows anything about Amestris, but it helps make this unfamiliar world feel connected for fans of the show.
As the tale progresses Edward gets in the middle of a German operation and uncovers a plot to open the gate in order to bring a powerful weapon from the other side to the aide of their cause. Fueled by the Nazi party, these Germans are lead by a vile woman named Dietlinde Eckhart who captures Envy and use his serpentine body as a way to open the gate to Shamballa. Of course for the sake of this film Shamballa isn't a mystical Tibetan kingdom behind the mountains, it's actually Amestris. At first Eckhart's plan seems doomed to fail because without a connector on the other side she has no hope of forcing the Gate to remain open. Unwittingly, that's where Al steps in.
At the end of the series the two brothers, in their own little worlds, made a promise to keep searching for a way to be reunited. Well, Al has found a way to possibly make that happen and begins crafting a transmutation circle to our world. With the two circles nearing completion what does this mean for the brothers and both worlds? Well, that's about as far as I'm willing to go because frankly, I don't want to ruin things for you.
The Conqueror of Shamballa bobs and weaves between Munich and Amestris as the story begins to unfold. The effect is a little disorienting at first, but then again it felt a little disjointed in the series when Edward finally arrived on Earth. I suppose it's just the change in venue that was the cause of the feeling, but whatever the reason it was something that grew on me. The manner in which both brothers work separately towards the common goal flows well along with the story here.
Amidst the tale of the Elric brothers real world events are happening back in Germany. Since the story takes place after the First World War the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party is played as kind of a side plot. Granted Eckhart is supposed to be working for Hitler and all but her motives seem to be more of her own ambitions instead of following someone else's cause. The film even works in the Beer Hall Putsch which occurred on November 8, 1923 in a manner that involves Edward in a brilliant way.
Another point I'd like to bring up is the fact that Gypsies and Jews are presented as running a parallel fate as the Ishbalans on Amestris. In the eyes of the German people they are outcasts, not to be trusted, and something to be eradicated because of their beliefs. The military of Amestris treated the Ishbalan people in much of the same manner throughout the show. Towards the end of the series we learned more and more about their treatment and after seeing this film that connection is only stronger.
With the lack of alchemy at parts and presentation of technology in our timeline The Conqueror of Shamballa feels a little bit like Steamboy at parts. Everything that fans have come to love about this series is still here in every frame though and even after watching the film for a fifth time I still felt moved. Anime movies that stem from series rarely get better than this. If you're looking for a true ending to the show this will give you satisfactory closure.
Since the first disc in this Special Edition is the same as the original release the technical merits remain strong; but identical. As a show Fullmetal Alchemist wowed with fantastic animation and a slick presentation. The only thing missing was an anamorphic transfer which thankfully The Conqueror of Shamballa receives. Just like the series the visuals in the film are absolutely gorgeous, though in many ways they seem even better. This was probably the byproduct of an even bigger budget than the show had. Don't worry though, the art style and animation hasn't changed at all; it just seems more fluid.
With 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround tracks for both English and Japanese The Conqueror of Shamballa trumps the show's presentation ever slightly. The inclusion of the Japanese 5.1 track was a fantastic addition. Seeing as this is one of the few series where I felt the English and Japanese dubbing were equal in quality having two surround options was nice, since it balanced things out. As far as the quality of the sound is concerned the 5.1 mixes made good use of the rear speakers for ambient noise and music. They really kicked in with the action heated up but toned things down greatly when dialogue had the screen's attention. Subtitles are included for the Japanese track only.
The original release for The Conqueror of Shamballa was fairly barebones but the inclusion of a forty minute documentary helped cushion the blow. That same feature comes back thanks to the reprinting of the first disc so if you missed it the first time around you don't have to worry about double dipping. "The Making of Fullmetal Alchemist The Movie – Conqueror of Shamballa" is a documentary that provides information about making the movie. It could alternately be called "Director Mizushima's Fullmetal Chronicles" because it is basically the director's look back at the process of creating the film. From storyboard to completion and some discussion about the show this feature covered a lot.
The second disc includes much more supplemental content; after all it's the whole point of the Special Edition. The first feature is a "Talk Session" with Seiji Mizushima, Romi Park, Rie Kugimiya, and Toru Okawa. For those not in the know they are some of the Japanese staff; well, that is to say that they are the Director, Ed, Al, and Roy. This feature was basically an interview and chat segment where they all talk about various topics related to the film, show, and their personal lives. It's a lot of fun and it's easy to see the good chemistry that these guys had.
Three other extras are included on this disc but they are all commentaries, so if you were looking for more featurettes you're sadly left out. While I was expecting the English commentary (I found out about that during Anime Boston 2006) I was very surprised to see two Japanese tracks included. The first is a Japanese Actor commentary while the second includes the staff. As you'd expect the actor commentaries are fairly informal with a lot of banter but not a lot of insight. The staff commentary, however, offers much more information about behind the scenes stuff and what it took to get certain scenes to look the way they did.
The last big benefit to picking up the Special Edition instead of the regular version is the packaging. The case is presented with a book-like design with some nice artwork. Inside is an envelope that has some art cards and a 64 page booklet with a ton of information and sketches. There are also some printed interviews and breakdown of some scenes from the film.
In the end you really have to ask yourself if the special features are worth the extra cost. The movie is amazing but it is merely something that fans of the show will be interested in. If you have already picked up the original release I'd have to say that by comparison the Special Edition is worthwhile because of the extra features and presentation. If for some reason you are a fan but haven't checked this out yet then you're better off going with this version. Then again some people just don't care about the extras. Either way you look at it, this is a strong reissue that could have possibly been better, but is fine just the same.
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