COMMENTARY: ‘Princess Mononoke’ Too Adult for America?

This fall, Miramax brought “Princess Mononoke” to America. In Japan, the animated feature was the nation’s highest-grossing movie ($150 million-plus) and the winner of its version of the Best Picture Oscar.

But despite its credentials and all-star voice-over cast (newly dubbed efforts from Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson and others), the film played on a limited number of screens here, grossing just $2.3 million.

Did Miramax and Disney — the studio’s parent company — underestimate and undersell what is widely regarded as an animation classic?

No, the problem with “Princess Mononoke” is that it’s a real movie — not just an animated movie, but a story with complicated characterizations, adult themes and concerns and absolutely no pandering cute characters singing, dancing or clowning. The film is almost casually sophisticated, with passages of brutal, emotionally charged violence and sexual content.

It’s a movie that doesn’t assume cartoons are inherently “kid’s stuff,” that doesn’t assume kids are beyond content tinged with violence and sex, that doesn’t assume children will be harmed by unpleasant images.

As is so often the case with Japanese animation (or “anime”) and comics (“manga”), “Princess Mononoke” assumes an intelligence and sophistication on the part of its audience (including younger audience members) that, unfortunately, just isn’t to be found in America.

And here, to some degree, Disney is at fault for the film’s failure — not in choosing to distribute a blockbuster such as “Princess Mononoke” as a small, boutique film, but in training Americans to think of animated features as a specific kind of animal … namely a cuddly, singing and dancing one.

Take, for (another) example, “The Iron Giant.” The Warner Bros. release was one of the two best American animated features of the past several years (the other is “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” — more on that later).

A compelling, amusing, often exciting story designed to appeal to both children and adults, “The Iron Giant” had a ’50s deco look appropriate to its subject matter, vaguely invoking classic ’30s animation, a la the Fleischer Studio’s “Superman” cartoons.

But, unfortunately, the bottom line was: No one went to see “The Iron Giant.” It grossed an underwhelming $23.2 million.

Arguably, the movie’s failure was, in part, due to an ineffective theatrical trailer and marketing campaign. But the larger picture says that what ailed “The Iron Giant” ailed “Princess Mononoke“: No songs, no cute-and-cuddly creatures.

By comparison, Disney’s “Tarzan,” released just weeks before “The Iron Giant,” and replete with songs and creatures, was a summer’s blockbuster, grossing $170.8 million. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision of the Ape Man was painfully Disneyized, with dollops of political correctness and inappropriate comedy relief. The film was another instance of Disney so narrowly defining the animated feature that “Princess Mononoke,” if not “The Iron Giant,” barely had homes in the U.S. marketplace.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” meanwhile, was that rarest of successes — an aggressively anti-Disney that was a hit with audiences, grossing $52 million. With a cartoon style borrowed from Charles Schulz, Rankin/Bass and Colorforms, Trey Parker and Matt Stone skewered the very genre of the animated film. Their subject matter was ignorant and prejudiced adults who are quick to censor and ban — and slow on actually spending time raising their children.

South Park” went on to brilliantly lampoon the Disney-style animated feature with its savagely witty original score, highlighted by a gay Satan singing the typically bombastic touchy-feely ballad so common to Disney and Disneyesque features.

Parker and Stone were well aware that, with the movie’s home-video release, a hip teen-age audience would have access to this hysterically profane R-rated film. But in the meantime, they demonstrated that animated features could be smart and adult.

It was limited victory, however, a victory that “Princess Mononoke” didn’t get to enjoy. The satirical nature of “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” placed it in a category unto itself … for the moment anyway.