"Superficial" in the sense that I will not nitpick every nook and cranny of both versions. Furthermore, several aspects of each will be glossed over.
However, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has the advantage since it closely follows the manga, which I read in its entirety. Maybe about halfway through this, you might already know which adaptation I like the most. Regardless, I will try to mention what aspects of each show were well executed.
Hey, Mustang, you worthless idiot! Fire alchemy and rain
The one thing the 2003 series nailed very well from day one was setting up and developing the characters. The show spent a good amount of time letting us get to know who everyone was and each of their little perks. Edward, Alphonse, Mustang, Hawkeye, Armstrong, Hues, the homunculi, and several other miscellaneous characters all have plenty of personality. The relationships between the members of the military and the Elric brothers are fleshed out as well, creating a tight-nit and interactive cast where almost everyone feels relevant in the short or long term.
|Badassery has been passed down the Sparklepants bloodline...|
This makes one infamous death scene absolutely awful to sit through. For nearly twenty episodes you got to know the character, their friends, their quirks, their family. Even when I was spoiled and saw the death and funeral scenes - with no other context from the series - I wept. After watching the episodes leading up to it, I bawled.
However, there was one time this slow-paced introduction and presence of characters nearly killed my patience for the main story. For the first few episodes the plot screams to a halt as we see a long series of flashbacks showing Ed and Al's early childhood, their attempt to resurrect their mother, and their early days in the military. I remain on the fence about this idea. As annoying as this seemed at first, it turned out to be beneficial. Despite there being a handful of ridiculous comedic moments, each episode gave a hint of what was to come later on. Some episodes began with a series of heartfelt interactions... only to end in a subtly twisted way. ...Or sometimes there will be complete body horror.
|The homunculi named after the seven deadly sins... of whom?|
Once the main story got up and running, things started to go downhill. Although I greatly, deeply cared about the protagonists and their allies, I could not help but feel apathetic to the homunculi. Even when reading spoilers on the FMA wiki, I still could not bring myself to care. The 2003 anime is brilliant in how it sets up the characters, but I always had the idea that the writers would pull plot points out of their ass to force us to care about the franchise's greatest questions. If anything, all I cared about was Ed and Al getting their bodies back. I completely understood the obstacles they faced in the past and within the military. I understood they had to serve the system they wholeheartedly resent in order to get the resources to reclaim their bodies.
YET I could not care about Greed, Envy, Lust, or Gluttony. I rolled my eyes when I read about the other homunculi. And I threw the towel, calling bullshit, when I read about the ending.
|Now, now, children...|
On the other hand, some scenes were better handled in the manga and Brotherhood. The universe loves to dump a shit-ton of salt on Ed's wounds, especially when they relate to the possible state of Al's body or the failed resurrection of his mother. Compared to all the calm, composed and all-together disposition of most shonen protagonists, it's very refreshing - and kinda scary - to see him suffer numerous relatively understandable Heroic Blue Screens of Death. (Hell, TVTropes called him the patron saint of the trope!) To some degree, I can't blame him. After seeing half of the hideous monsters and ways people die in this franchise, I'm sometimes baffled he hasn't admitted himself in an institution.
Cue Heroic BSOD #15 in three... two...
Other than the occasional filler events, such as Barry the Chopper kidnapping Winry and torturing Ed, MOST of the elder Elric's moments of breaking down from total shock tend to make more sense or are more satisfying in Brotherhood. Some things, such as the death of a particular chimera, are handled well in both versions. Typically in the 2003 adaptation he freaks out then bursts into tears. In Brotherhood he blames himself, internalizes his emotions, and suffers from nightmares as a result. When the nightmare comes true, he's completely thrown off. Both types of reactions make sense in context, so it really depends on the viewer.
|HIM's "Borellus" seems appropriate for this...|
Fullmetal Alchemist has various moments and scenes of horror. From the use of lighting, sound effects, and colors of some scenes, this almost feels like something ripped out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. With a lot more blood. Just watch the first two minutes of the first show and I'm sure you'd love to munch on popcorn. :D Or give the episodes in the fifth laboratory a look. The whole thing reminded me a bit too much of the Reapers harvesting lifeforms in Mass Effect. Except in that case, the games left your brain to illustrate and fill in the blanks.
Would you trust this thing and call it daddy? o_O
To further give off this atmosphere, various characters react quite negatively against certain revelations. Once Ed and Al figure out how a Philosopher's Stone is created, they both look and sound extremely disgusted. Watching the homunculi fight or show their true colors leaves everyone scared shitless. Seeing these reactions help make these scenes seem much more genuine and disturbing.
Both versions create a sense of dread very well, although the 2003 version creates a better atmosphere. Perhaps the budget was not as great as its predecessor, but the use of color, lighting, and even fog helped set the tension of a scene. It even gave off a more musty, clautrophobic air.
|"Call me a shorty and I'll kick your ass!"|
In terms of action and combat, Brotherhood wins hands down. Thankfully the use of CGI is quite minimal and did not clash too much with the rest of the animation. Alas, this is Studio Bones, so some of you might not any more convincing that this show was well cared for.
Plot-wise, Brotherhood was far better paced. Events, fights, and story arcs came and went without rushing too quickly and without overstaying its welcome. The story was FAR from episodic, allowing things to keep moving and slowly reveal multiple mysteries at once. The main villain is hinted at much earlier on than in the first adaptation and the questions focus more on the giant chessboard and how all the players are positioned.
With the 2003 show there were too many things left in the dark for so long in the first half of the show. By the time a homunculus other than Envy, Greed, Lust, or Sloth emerged and Ed and Al's father showed up, it was too late for me to care. Their presences were hardly discussed or pondered as we watched Hues be an overprotective, doting father or Winry and Ed try so damn hard to avoid getting a room. At least Brotherhood sprinkled hints and took turns to reveal more and more about the various facets of the story.
Well now, after that wall of word vomit, here's a quick review of my points.
The 2003 adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist creates a tense atmosphere appealing more to suspense than action. This version was fantastic in crafting extremely likable characters with understandable concerns. Hardly anyone felt like a pointless comedy relief figure with no substance to plot relevance. Major Sparklpants - I meant Armstrong -or Lieutenant Hues could both have easily fallen into this mold if not for the times they would help Ed, Al, or Mustang figure out another piece of the mysteries within the plot.
It's only a shame that once I got past the halfway point, my interest ran low. After spending so much time on character growth, there was hardly a sense of progress in terms of plot. There was hardly any foreshadowing, or a sense that the writers knew where they were going with this plot.
And I must ask... the ending and the movie that expands upon it... really? Did you try to pull a Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for the lulz?
Meanwhile, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was far more efficient in balancing plot and characters. Things remained relatively straightforward and the pacing was more consistent. I could easily pay attention to each of the several dozen reoccurring characters, especially Ed and Al's dad, the main villain, and the homunculi. The action is a beauty to behold and the visuals are stunning. The ending was bittersweet and happy, but more importantly, it didn't feel like a complete ass pull. It was satisfying, cohesive and made sense.
The major drawback is in how there are more characters, but they are less fleshed out. Some scenes were omitted because the 2003 adaptation already covered it, leaving first-time viewers without something. This is especially true if you did not read the manga at all. The grotesque body horror elements remain, but they don't make such a strong impact as before. In my eyes, really cool action is not as interesting as a tense, creepy, morose atmosphere.
Some last second things to add on...
Even though the English dub is fantastic I continue to NOT understand why so many girls squeal over Ed and his voice actor Vic Mignogna. As much as I appreciated Ed's moments of weakness to counteract his tough-guy act, I am baffled at how popular he is. Long before I gave Fullmetal Alchemist a try, I heard nothing but squees and sighs about how absolutely hot and sexy Ed is. All I translated was that he was the Edward Cullen of anime. The similar name sure didn't help much.
|*sigh* You fangirls aren't even trying...|
I felt great pity of Ed a few times: when he blamed himself for letting Al lose his body, when that one chimera was slaughtered, and when he freaked out at his estranged dad bringing up the boys' failed attempt to bring back their mom. Several times I had an urge to punch him - REALLY hard - for predictably beating himself up over something he had little fault in.
Ed's not a bad character at all and I do like him... I just don't get the complete, undying OBSESSION, you know?
Ed's not a bad character at all and I do like him... I just don't get the complete, undying OBSESSION, you know?
Overall I found myself more drawn to Alphonse. He remained so level-headed and sane throughout the whole story that Winry and Ed get angry and scream long before he has a chance to react. I loved all the times when Ed was out of the picture for a while, leaving Al to stand his ground and protect everyone. It was even more refreshing when Al beat the crap out of Ed for attempting to sacrifice himself to let him live. Another one of his best moments was when he questioned whether his soul was really trapped in a suit of armor or his brother created an imitation. These little additions helped establish Al as a competent character not completely dependent on Ed to have an impact on the story.
Or maybe I liked Al so much since he was not a hot flaming piece of service to get fangirls horny. Thankfully he is a suit of armor for 95% of the series.
|Just remember who has to fix your arm, Ed...|
Regardless of which version you watch, however, Fullmetal Alchemist is a very heartfelt and genuine series for anyone to enjoy. Despite the fact that they constantly sledgehammer the fact that they are flesh and blood, the brotherly bond between Ed and Al is still very powerful and heartwarming. A theme of family permeates throughout the story in many forms because the characters and their relationships are so fleshed out and relatable. I cried [unwimpy] tears numerous times: after emotionally manipulative sob fests like Elfen Lied and Clannad, I greatly welcomed this.
Will it becomes one of my favorite anime/manga series of all time? ... No. But it was worth checking out.
FMA (2003): 4 out of 5
FMA Brotherhood: 4.5 out of 5
Overall: 4.3 out of 5