Movie Curiosities: The Boy and the Heron

At this rate, I won’t believe that Grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki will ever truly retire until he’s dead. And even then, he might have a few projects in the pipeline to be completed and released posthumously.

The Boy and the Heron was deliberately released with virtually no hype or promotion. Before the film’s release, all we got was a single poster that showed virtually nothing. Then again, it’s a Hayao Miyazaki film. If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the previous work of the world’s greatest living animator (and I should certainly hope you have), you already know to a certain extent what you’re getting.

Very likely (especially given the title), this will be a coming-of-age tale steeped in nostalgia for Miyazaki’s own childhood. It will most definitely come with a pacifist and ecological agenda, hammering the audience over the head with the evils of war, greed, industrialization, and so on. And we can all be damn well sure that the film will be a superbly animated work of high-flying fantasy — perhaps literally, given Miyazaki’s well-known passion for planes and flying. (And again, that title.)

Thus in keeping with Miyazaki’s wishes, I deliberately went into the film as blindly as possible. I was convinced that I already knew everything I needed and wanted to know about this picture without previewing a single frame.

Sure enough, all of the above predictions were bang on the money. But there was one recurring point with Miyazaki that I had failed to consider: His snooker-loopy plots and world-building.

To take it from the top, this is the story of Mahito, voiced by Soma Santoki in the Japanese original and Luca Padovan in the English dub. Mahito is a young boy who lost his mother in a hospital fire three years into the Asia-Pacific War. A year later, his father (Shoichi, voiced by Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale) has gotten engaged to his dead wife’s sister (Natsuko, voiced by Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan) and the two are already expecting a new child.

To repeat, the man lost his wife, knocked up her sister, and the two of them got engaged, all within a year. Take a minute to reflect on how screwed up that is, because the film never does.

Anyway, Mahito’s dad opens up a new munitions factory a short distance from the ancestral home of his mom and aunt. And certain plot developments I won’t discuss here prevent Mahito from attending school. Thus Mahito discovers certain long-hidden family secrets, with the encouragement of a shapeshifting trickster taking the form of a Grey Heron (Masaki Suda/Robert Pattinson). I might add that Mahito is still deep in grief over his lost mother, his father is busy at work, and while Natsuko seems nice enough, he’s not exactly thrilled with the prospect of a new stepmom, so those are factors as well.

Long story short, Natsuko goes missing and Mahito chases her down the rabbit hole, and we’re off to the races from there.

To be clear, the animation is fantastic, the ecological motif is beautifully expressed, and Mahito’s central development arc is nicely poignant. Everything that made Miyazaki such a grandmaster is here. Trouble is, there’s so damn much of it. This is a two-hour movie, and half an hour could’ve easily been trimmed. The pace of this film is dreadfully languid.

What’s worse, precious little of that screen time goes toward developing the wonderland of the film and how it works. Granted, this is a Miyazaki film — his characters typically take for granted that they’re living among gods and monsters and typically accept as much without batting an eye. My personal favorite example is probably in Spirited Away, when Chihiro comes across a lantern hopping on one foot through a dark forest and instantly accepts it at face value without explanation or shock.

Very seldom does Miyazaki feel compelled to explain the whys and wherefores of whatever fantastical world he’s putting together. That might be understandable if it led to a faster-paced story, but to repeat, no such luck. I might add that this leads directly to a number of plot holes, most especially an outright death-cheating plot-buster in the third act. Oh, and the plot has a time-travel/multiverse-spanning element to it, to make matters even more confusing.

I’m at a loss for much else to say about The Boy and the Heron, except to say that the bar for suspending disbelief is set astronomically high. Either you’re on board to take the film on its own wacky terms — or you’re on board to see anything Studio Ghibli produces — or you’re not. This isn’t the greatest of Miyazaki’s films (Princess Mononoke, still the greatest animated film ever made), nor is it the ideal film to serve as an introduction to the grandmaster’s work (Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro). In terms of Miyazaki’s established work, I’d say it rests comfortably between Ponyo and The Wind Rises, nicely blending the batshit children’s fantasy elements of the former with the wartime family pathos of the latter.

It’s certainly not a bad movie, but I don’t agree that it’s “96 percent Tomatometer” good. It’s worth seeing for the protagonist’s development arc as he learns to move past grief, the animation is of course phenomenal, and I respect a film for integrating time travel as smoothly as this one does. Even so, the rocky world-building and glacial pace are serious caveats.

All of that aside, I’m doing the best I can to discuss the film without going too deeply into specifics. If you’re going to see the movie — and you should’ve seen it already if you’re a Miyazaki devotee — you should do everything possible to see it knowing the bare minimum.

Oh, and pro-tip: If you’re out at the movies with with young children — kids young enough that they can’t read or have trouble reading — don’t take them to a movie with subtitles. Nobody wants to hear you read the subtitles aloud to your kids in a theater throughout the entire movie. For your sake and everyone else’s, please go see the dubbed version or wait for the home release.

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1 thought on “Movie Curiosities: The Boy and the Heron

  1. A bit disappointing to hear the film is padded, but given how long Miyazaki has been in the business and how acclaimed his works are, I can forgive him for being a little self-indulgent. I definitely plan to see this when it comes to streaming/physical release, mainly because I saw a clip of how great the vocal performances are in the English dub and the animation blew me away (no surprises there).

    Regarding the lack of explanations for the more fantastic elements, I just chalk that up to being a standard magic realism setting. Magic and the supernatural exist and people pretty much accept it but few actually encounter it themselves.

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