At one point during Princess, a five-year-old drags the hooked end of a crowbar through broken glass, castrates a man with it, then kills him. That's what kind of film this is.
While that particular scene is just about as uncomfortable to watch as Anders Morgenthaler's third feature-length gets, it is a pretty telling microcosm for the whole experience. Effortlessly blending live action with traditional and computer-generated animation, Princess assaults audiences with an age-old discourse on morality and pornography. Namely: who it hurts, who it benefits, and who's responsible.
While its visual style will get it noticed, it's this debate that makes Princess stand-out. It tells the story of August--a priest at the film's outset--who was inadvertently responsible for his sister becoming a porn princess as a teenager. The story begins with the princess' death and August's adoption of her five-year-old daughter, Mia, who had been living in a brothel. After learning of Mia's vicious abuse at the hands of her mother's former business associates, and fearing that constant bombardment with her mother's image will further damage the child, August does what any reasonable adoptive parent would do: he demands that the porn company who owns the rights to her image destroy all "Princess" related materials. They refuse, of course, so he responds by torching as much of it as he can find, killing and/or maiming a number of employees. General badassery abounds.
With the exception of one particularly memorable gunfight, August's moral (and often brutal) battles against the porn industry remain mostly within the land of the pencil and pad--though that isn't to say they're any less unsettling. Throughout, the blend of visual styles helps to disconnect the different parts of the story temporally and thematically. Certain characters are only hand drawn, and others only appear in the live-action segments, which typically take place before the story proper. The bright, colorful animation also subtly suggests the filtering of the acerbic world through a child's perspective, and the imposed unreality of both the sex and violence is even more disturbing than if Morgenthaler had just stuck with one style.
Unfortunately, the ending doesn't share the rest of the film's skilful execution. Though much of the subtext is carried on the strength of the narrative's symbols, August's final gambit uses them as a crutch. Without ruining the twist, August attempts to destroy the man he holds responsible for his niece's abuse with the symbol of her innocence. The thing is--given what that symbol is, and its primary function within the narrative up until that point--his choice doesn't make a whole lot of sense from a pragmatic, "what's-the-best-way-to-kill-this-guy?" stance. Given the superb quality of the film before that, it's crushing to see Morgenthaler fumble on something that would have been so easy to fix, if only he had spent the extra time on the script.
Fortunately for Morgenthaler, the only less-than-perfect part of Princess comprises about one per cent of it's total run time. Even despite its one small flaw, Princess is a deftly-told story of one man who decides to trade sex for violence, but still ends up getting fucked in the end.