The Vision of Escaflowne was an influential anime back in the 90s. It was jam packed with content, from mechas fighting it out to philosophical themes such as the “alteration of fate.” Perhaps the best aspect of the show is how developed the characters are. Great care was put into the diverse personalities each of them had. There’s a fantastic sense of nobility to the story. Though sometimes the grand scheme was a bit vague, Escaflowne remains one of the great anime fantasy epics. In the year 2000, Sunrise released a film simply titled Escaflowne. Instead of a sequel, it was a retelling of the 26 episode series. That’s ambitious and of course liberties would have to be taken if a 95 minute film was to adapt a whole show. Sadly, too many liberties were taken. The film is still decent whether you’ve seen the show or not, but one is better off taking the time to watch the 26 episodes.
The film opens up with Van slashing his way through various enemies to get to the Escaflowne armor. It’s a typical action film opening, but it’s still exciting. The first act then takes place on Earth, similar to The Vision of Escaflowne’s first episode. Hitomi is introduced, along with her friend Yukari. It’s here where the dire changes from the show start to become evident. The writing reveals this version of Hitomi to be depressed and suicidal. It’s a sour note to introduce her character. Hitomi had inner monologues in the the show, but she wasn’t depressed.
What the writing does is give her a character arc that is similar to Folken in the film. (We’ll get to him soon.) Hitomi in the show is known for her kindness and ability to see the good in others. She becomes that person later in the film as she interacts with Van and sees how Folken is. It’s not a bad character arc in concept, but it doesn’t work as well as it could thanks to the rather short runtime. Because of the rushed pacing, major plot points like the romance between Hitomi and Van feels extremely forced. Escaflowne just wasn’t meant to be told in 95 minutes.
The world of Gaea is vast, which is why 26 episodes was needed to fully explore it. There’s too little backstory in the film. Going back to the first act, I don’t want to compare the film again, but the buildup to Hitomi entering Gaea in the show was epic. Van’s confrontation with the dragon should have been remade. Instead, we get this cheesy dream-like sequence and then Hitomi magically appears inside Escaflowne. The pacing is a bit slow from here until Dilandau and his men arrive.
Unfortunately, most of the characters are a step down from their original appearances. Allen was given great prominence in the show, but in the film he’s reduced to a supporting character. He could have actually been cut out and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I was also distracted by how much his redesign resembled Sephiroth. (Seriously, they look like twins.) Princess Millerna is given a big makeover, having a more warrior-like persona. That’s fine, but what does she actually do in the film? She doesn’t really fight at all despite the redesign. That’s the problem; aside from a few characters, most are just there because of their names. Worse is that Naria and Eriya, two interesting characters from the show, are reduced to fleeting cameos.
Arguably the biggest change was completely removing Emperor Dornkirk. Dornkirk was the main antagonist in the show. Though he was mostly in the same place the entire time, he was the person behind the entire conflict. Dornkirk’s fascination with the “alteration of fate” was an engaging plot point, and gave the show a grand philosophical conflict. Once you remove Dornkirk, you remove a vital part of what made Escaflowne so great. Instead, the film uses Folken as the villain. This could have been interesting, since Folken was one of the show’s best characters. He retains his engaging demeanor, though his goal is to ultimately die. He also hates Van because the latter was chosen to be king. This wasn’t a bad plot point, but it needed more backstory and flashbacks.
All of this is not to say Escaflowne is unwatchable. The story picks up nicely when Dilandau arrives. The buildup to Dilandau against Van was epic. Though, Van and Dilandau possessing magical abilities was unneeded, and actually made the fight anti-climatic. On the positive side, there’s a cinematic quality to the battle of the mechas in the latter part of the film. The writing in the scene with Van and Ruukusu was particularly strong and gave viewers a peak of the grand backstory the film doesn’t show. There’s some excitement in the climax as Folken confronts Van. Hitomi get some good dialogue. Sadly, the “showdown” is lackluster, thanks to the silly magic visuals. The resolution is good in concept, but like mostly everything else in the film, it was rushed. Back to the positive side of things, the soundtrack is fantastic. It uses the iconic themes from the show while also adding in fantastic original music.
Overall, Escaflowne: The movie is a disappointing retelling of the classic show. On its own it’s a decent fantasy movie with an interesting story, good (but severely underutilized) characters and some solid fights. But it fails to revamp what made the original anime a near masterpiece. The philosophical conflict is removed in favor of something more simple. A lot of the main characters are given nothing important to do. At the very least, it removes the unnecessary love triangle between Hitomi, Van, and Allen. It’s a decent enough movie, but to really appreciate Escaflowne, one should invest time into the anime.