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"Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" Part 3: Originality Costs an Arm and a Leg

by on March 10, 2011

Before I even begin, let’s have a quick recap. When I reviewed part one of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I called it a promising show that was badly hurt by the way it rushed through scenes that had already been done in the first Fullmetal Alchemist . I said that despite this poor pacing it was still a very well-made piece of work, and that I was willing to wait and see how much it improved. The second part was indeed a massive step upward, despite a few weak moments. The series started to slow down a bit so that it could introduce its new characters, and the show felt much more natural for it. There was an also an increase in the beautifully choreographed and animated action scenes that acted as exclamation points for the show’s various plot reveals. So I wrote that the show had been redeemed, and ended my review hoping that the next set would continue the trend.

To make a long story short, I was very disappointed.

Hardcore fans of the manga, who detested the changes the original series made to the franchise’s plot, may find the show worth buying just because it offers them the chance to see certain characters and scenes finally animated. And, at times, the show will manage a really good, well-crafted episode, with “The Ishvalan War of Extermination” and “The Northern Wall of Briggs” being the two that leap readily to mind. But on the whole, what we have here is a bunch of episodes in which characters discuss, explain, and mull over the plot.

Now obviously, we want the characters to throw us a little plot exposition here and there, especially when the plot in question is as sprawling as that of Fullmetal Alchemist. But the degree to which it happens is annoying, and even worse is the lifelessness of these scenes. They all unfold in basically the same fashion: a character will stare at the ground, and in a voice that is flat but on the verge of breaking into emotion describe to their friends or themselves the horrible things that are going on. Since the show features a prodigious cast, this is repeated ad nauseam every time a discovery is made. Ed to Roy, Roy to Armstrong, Armstrong to Ed, Ed to Winry. Why would any sane person write such pieces of dialogue? Probably because most of them are cribbed directly from the manga, where such exposition lasted only a few seconds and didn’t impede the reading.

That brings me to a fatal mistake the episodes on this set make: ripping scenes directly from the comic. And I don’t mean mere faithful adapting, which is obviously to be expected. I mean literally re-doing scenes from the manga line by line and panel by panel. This is a particularly embarrassing flaw for me to bring up, since I have defended the series when it was accused of doing so. But up until now it hasn’t been much of a problem. The episodes on the first release went by far too quickly for them to completely adapt the manga with the kind of unerring accuracy now on display, and while the episodes on the second release fell prey to this occasionally they also featured tons of scenes that simply couldn’t be seen in any other medium than animation. In this release, though, we basically get a motion comic. There aren’t as many fight scenes as there were in part two, so the movement is always limited, and the dialogue and scene layouts appear to be almost completely untouched. This is a problem. As I noted way, way back in my review of the first Fullmetal Alchemist release, what works in a comic simply will not always work on screen. And so jokes are ruined, drama turns into melodrama, timing of all kinds is shot to hell, and dialogue feels stilted. To be absolutely fair, there are some scenes from the manga that, through sheer dumb luck, actually do translate well to animation—the two good episodes mentioned above are examples of this—but these are far outnumbered, and, as the show is, after all, a serial, it’s hard to judge an episode on its own merits, no matter how well-crafted it is. (Also pleasant, and even less numerous, are scenes in which the source material appears to have been discarded as anything more then a rough guide. The amount of life in such scenes compared to the others is impressive and head-slappingly frustrating.) As if all that wasn’t enough, the cut-and-paste nature makes technically competent scenes look and feel clinical and flat.

And then, as a final nail in the coffin, we have those timing issues I mentioned in my earlier reviews. I almost hate to bring them up again, because I’ve already talked them to death, but the series still hasn’t escaped them. Oh, now, to be fair, the episodes in this set are spaced out just fine: the major characters who get their real introductions here, like Olivier and Kimblee, are fully spelled out. But other, earlier characters, who are supposed to have been completely developed by now, still seem little more than shadows.

So does the series have anything worthwhile in it? The visuals look fine, but the aesthetic talent we’ve seen previously on this show is massively under-utilized here: as mentioned before, there aren’t as many of those impressive fight scenes, and the ones that do pop up are too short to be truly satisfying. The voice-actors, both English and Japanese, try their damnedest, and there are fine performances for Eric Vale’s Kimblee, Scott Baker’s Greed, and Stephanie Young’s Olivier Armstrong. Unfortunately, two of the strongest actors from the earlier shows, Vic Mignola and Caitlin Glass, seem to be just going through the motions. (Ed in particular only seems to have about five tones to his voice). The one thing that it gets completely right is the music, and here it comes close to blowing the first show—and several other shows—completely out of the water. The OPs and EDs are energetic and memorable, not to mentioned lavishly drawn and energetically animated. One gets the feeling that this is why the action in the actual episodes became so disappointing, but that doesn’t improve the quality of the pieces as a whole. The score’s leitmotifs are also quite charming, although some of them get repeated a bit too frequently.

So if this was a soundtrack, I would give it plenty of praise. Unfortunately, it is not, and no amount of pretty music can save a show that’s so unpleasantly derivative of its source material. Perhaps the fourth DVD release will be the improvement I was hoping for. “Yes, it gets really good once you get past the first thirty-nine episodes!”

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