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Movie Review: “The Boy and the Heron”

By Bob Garver

NOTE: This Japanese film is available in both “Subbed” and “Dubbed” versions. This review will focus on the “Dubbed” version with the English-language voice cast.


Movie Review: “The Boy and the Heron”

            Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement for “The Boy and the Heron,” a sprawling fantasy with semiautobiographical elements. Surprisingly, it’s the more grounded elements that work better, maybe because they’re lifted from Miyazaki’s own life. They’re part of his own story so he made sure to get them right before letting himself indulge in the fantastical portion of the film.

            The film follows 12-year-old Mahito Maki (Luca Padovan) a few years after the death of his mother in a Tokyo hospital fire. His father (Christian Bale) marries his mother’s younger sister Natsuko (Gemma Chan) and together they move to the countryside, to an estate originally built by Mahito’s eccentric architect great-granduncle (Mark Hamill). I really was drawn into the story of the boy being whisked away to a new family life in an unfamiliar place, a position of affluence where he’s nevertheless incredibly lonely and broken. Then the maids showed up and the movie lost me.

            There are seven maids that work at the estate, and I have to believe there’s some sort of “Snow White” parallel there. They’re animated in a different, jarring fashion than the human characters we’ve seen up to that point, and the way they talk and move is off-putting too. Only one of them, named Kiriko (Florence Pugh) is necessary for the story. I have a theory that Miyazaki held a contest among his animation team to see who could design the funniest-looking old lady character in his trademark style, and he liked so many entries that he created more characters just so he’d have an excuse to use them.

            Mahito has such a hard time fitting in at school that he smashes his head with a rock to get out of going. It’s around this time that the gradually-building fantasy elements start manifesting, and I can’t help but wonder if what follows is a result of brain damage. A mysterious heron has been following Mahito around the property. He finally asks it what it wants, and surprisingly, the bird (Robert Pattinson) has an answer. It wants to take him to an alternate world ruled by his great-granduncle, a world where a younger version of his mother (Karen Fukuhara) is still alive.

            From there, the movie is a crazy adventure through an alternate reality, maybe several alternate realties, it’s all so confusing. There are new creatures and bizarro people around every corner. Somehow parakeets are the dominant species, and their king (Dave Bautista) wants to keep it that way. Eventually Mahito learns the hard lesson that the real world, with all its faults and malice, is better than even the best fantasy world, though I question how tempting the fantasy world actually is when it’s filled with bloodthirsty parakeets.

            Maybe “The Boy and the Heron” makes more sense to people well-versed in Miyazaki’s style. His contributions to animation – not just in Japan, but worldwide – can’t be overstated. He even won a Best Animated Feature Oscar before Disney ever did. This was my first official exposure to his work, and I can’t say I cared for it. I got a sort of whiplash from being constantly thrown into new fantasy worlds with new rules every five minutes. It doesn’t help that this movie is coming out at a time when people are tiring of the “multiverse” genre. Miyazaki clearly wants to get as many of his ambitious ideas onscreen as he can at age 82, but I didn’t need to be hit with everything, everywhere, all at once.


Grade: C


“The Boy and the Heron” is rated PG-13 for some violent content/bloody images and smoking. Its running time is 124 minutes.


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