‘The Boy And The Heron’ Review

Ed. Note: As a rule, I usually advise viewers to avoid watching dubbed versions of international films. Something just feels lost in translation during this process. However, due to both the nature of animation and Studio Ghibli’s history of working closely with the dubbing cast members in other countries, I not only watched the dubbed version for my screening, but absolutely recommend it to anyone hesitant or unable to watch a subtitled version. Especially because Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe make wild vocal choices

It is an unwritten rule that late-in-life artists rarely make their best work. Sure, their creations can be good; some might even say great (Scorsese is still putting out solid films well into his 80s). But few are still capable of crafting true-blue masterpieces; films that prove why they are unchallenged at the top. But then again, few filmmakers can be mentioned in the same sentence as Hayao Miyazaki, arguably the greatest animator in cinematic history. The legendary filmmaker has gifted us Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, some of the most influential works in the world of animation. And he has now emerged from a decade-long retirement with The Boy and the Heron, a work of pure artistry that proves once and for all that he is the uncontested master.

During the Pacific War, 12-year-old Mahito Maki moves to the countryside with his father Shoichi in the aftermath of his mother’s death in a Tokyo hospital fire. Shoichi now runs the local munitions factory and has remarried his late wife’s younger sister Natsuko. Grieving his mother and angry at his father and aunt for their decision, Mahito spends his time sulking and attempting to kill the grey heron that haunts the estate and seemingly taunts the boy. One day, Natsuko goes missing, and the heron informs Mahito that she has been transported to a fantasy world accessible through a sealed tower located on the estate. Mahito and the Heron must navigate the magical world to find Natsuko, where they must avoid the man-eating parakeets who roam the land with the aid of a magical young girl named Himi.

There are few worldbuilders who can elicit the same level of wonder as Miyazaki can, even well into his eighties. Hell, it’s hard to imagine many filmmakers in history who are on his level. Miyazaki just intrinsically knows exactly how to deliver on that promise of whimsy, horror, and magic; that wonderful combination that takes audiences on an emotional roller coaster through his fantastical worlds. One never knows what they’ll find, as each creature and visual seems determined to – and always succeeds – in providing humor, terror, and ultimately, catharsis. The world of Heron is no exception; indeed, each frame dazzles and delights in its whimsy.

There’s the magical heron that may actually just be a man in a heron’s skin. There’s an army of fascist parakeets that eat children. There’s even adorable baby souls that must survive getting eaten by pelicans as they float into the night sky, waiting to be born. Every detail fleshes out the world, allowing the themes and artistry of Miyazaki’s work to flourish and thrive with each and every reveal. Nothing is off-limits. One moment could revel in a horrific graveyard, the next the magical birds could be defecating on unsuspecting factory workers. Miyazaki makes work that delights children, stuns teenagers, and floors adults, and it is a skill that few can ever possess.

Of course, it’s easy to build fantastical new worlds when the animation looks like this. There is no one in the world with an eye for handcrafted animation like Miyazaki and his team at Studio Ghibli. Every frame is a gorgeous painting, immaculately rendered and seamlessly flowing into the next. It helps bring this world to life – each of the sequences mentioned in the previous paragraph simply would not work if the creatures weren’t perfectly designed, the colors not gorgeously rendered, or the characters rendered adorable and relatable. Miyazaki transports us to massive seas with perfectly visible ocean floors (I’m not quite sure how he pulled this off) to massive cloud paradises to the burning wreckage of a bombed Tokyo. He’s even capable of making something as graphic as the gutting of a fish seem beautiful (and of course uses it to segue into his secret weapon – food porn!).

All of this artistry ties together with Ghibli’s signature style of telling mature stories through the medium of children’s fantasy. The Boy and the Heron is no exception, tackling weighty, familiar themes like love and loss, acceptance and growth, and the need to make the world a better place than that which came before. Miyazaki has crafted another impeccable fable using Japan’s complicated history with World War II as a backdrop to humanity’s greatest and worst tendencies. It’s no fluke that Mahito’s father is rich from building weapons of war for the Imperial Army. Yet it’s also not a condemnation of who he is – he’s a loving father doing what he thinks is best to make the world a better place. Heron tells us of a world torn apart by older generations in their quest to build something great, and the role new generations must play in building a world “free of malice and violence.”

And yet, despite this weightiness, it is still a simple story about growing up and finding peace within yourself. When we meet Mahito, he’s so full of anger and hate at both himself and what the world has done to him, he smashes his own head in to get out of school and avoid facing the world. By the end, he must release his anger and embrace the love he’s been so blatantly rejecting. The film’s defining moment comes during an empathetic conversation he shares with a dying pelican. This journey of self-discovery is mirrored in the heron; when we meet the creature, he’s a trickster spirit engaged in a battle of wills with Mahito. By the end, the duo risks their lives for each other. Their personal growths emphasize Miyazaki’s humanist storytelling and provide the emotional catharsis this story needs to thrive.

The Boy and the Heron is a masterful film made by a master filmmaker. It is shot for shot, frame for frame, beat for beat miles ahead of its contemporaries. It’s not just that there has been a lack of this level of artistry in the field of animation on this level – there’s been a lack of this level of artistry in most films. This is Miyazaki’s best film since Spirited Away, maybe even since Mononoke. It is dazzling, staggering, awe-inspiring all at once. And if we can be so lucky, Miyazaki will continue to grace us with this level of mastery for years to come.

A+

The Boy and the Heron is now playing exclusively in theaters

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