The Boy and the Heron (2023, dir. Hayao Miyazaki) – BFI London Film Festival

by | Oct 22, 2023

Certificate: TBC

Running Time: 124 mins

UK Distributor: Elysian Film Group

UK Release Date: 26 December 2023

REVIEWED AT BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2023

WHO’S IN THE BOY AND THE HERON? (ENGLISH)

Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara, Gemma Chan, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh, Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Willem Dafoe, Mamoudou Athie, Tony Revolori, Dan Stevens

WHO’S IN THE BOY AND THE HERON? (JAPANESE)

Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Aimyon, Yoshino Kimura, Shōhei Hino, Ko Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura, Jun Kunimura, Kaoru Kobayashi, Keiko Takeshita, Jun Fubuki, Sawako Agawa, Karen Takizawa, Shinobu Otake

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Hayao Miyazaki (director, writer), Toshio Suzuki (producer), Joe Hisaishi (composer), Atsushi Okui (cinematographer), Takeshi Seyama (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young boy (Padovan/Santoki) enters a strange world shared by the living and the dead…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE BOY AND THE HERON?

Whatever it is that’s keeping Hayao Miyazaki from staying retired, it’s almost certainly proving to be one hell of a motivator to get back to work. The anime legend, and co-founder of Japan’s premier animation company Studio Ghibli, has announced his retirement from filmmaking several times before – first in 1997 after the release of Princess Mononoke, then in 2001 before his Oscar-winning masterpiece Spirited Away, and finally in 2013 during the press tour for The Wind Rises – but of course he always keeps coming back, as he has now done with The Boy and the Heron, a film that is as wondrously animated and as imaginative as anything he’s ever put out.

However, those expecting Miyazaki’s next big comeback to be an instant all-time classic that’s on par with many of his other highly-regarded features might want to temper their rather high expectations. The film is good, no doubt about that, but a tangly plot and a sluggish pace prevents it from being great. It is, at best, a mid-tier product by a top-tier animation giant, which is by no means a bad place for it to end up, but still not as fantastic as it could have been.

Set during the Second World War, our main character is a young boy named Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki in the original Japanese version, and by Luca Padovan in the English dub) who, after losing his mother in a hospital fire, relocates with his factory owner father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura/Christian Bale) to a countryside estate, where he has swiftly remarried and impregnated his late wife’s sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura/Gemma Chan). Mahito, reluctant to fully accept his aunt as his new mother, is soon approached by a small man disguised as a grey heron (Masaki Suda/Robert Pattinson), who lures the boy to a strange world that operates outside of time and space, where people from across the timeline live alongside anthropomorphic birds – including an army of parakeets – and where Natsuko has apparently been taken for Mahito to find.

In an odd criticism for a film by someone whose imagination is often one of their strengths, The Boy and the Heron is what happens when Hayao Miyazaki is allowed to imagine too much. The filmmaker is most effective when his stories are simple, straight to the point, and leaving enough room for the emotional impact to properly land, but here the story is overly busy with so much going on at once without much time to just breathe and take it all in, that it doesn’t take long to get confused about the mechanics of this fantasy world. It is a film that is wildly overthought, introducing new elements and rules at a moment’s notice to make it more difficult to make logical sense of everything, even though logic perhaps isn’t the point of this strange Wonderland-like realm where, again, there’s an army of human-sized parakeets marching about.

More concerningly, the complex world-building gets in the way of forming any real emotional attachments to the main characters, as the movie spends such little time with some of them that you hardly feel anything when one or more of them are placed in peril. For a short while, one of the comic relief maids (who collectively form this film’s version of Doc, Happy, Dopey etc from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) accompanies the somewhat bland young protagonist into an early section of the fantasy realm, and then something spoiler-y happens to them which is almost never addressed for most of the rest of the movie. Since there’s barely been enough focus on this character other than to provide some light relief, it’s hard to care when they are discarded in such odd fashion, which can also be said about a number of other supporting characters that drop in and out with just as little development, rendering it slightly flat when it comes to its emotional centre.

It is, purely from a storytelling perspective, not especially strong, for the limited investment in its story and characters makes it flimsy, confusing, and at times even dull to sit through, despite its imagination working beyond overtime. The visuals, on the other hand, are utterly enchanting, which often does make up for its lacking screenplay. Boasting some absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn animation, this is a world where the colours are popping from every corner of the frame, with Miyazaki pouring as much of his overactive creativity into the various landscapes, character designs, sets, and cinematography to make it a truly visual marvel.

Honestly, for me, it really was the beauty of this animation that was keeping me from zoning out of this rather unengaging story, because Miyazaki and the countless team of animators working at Studio Ghibli – the static blue Totoro logo for which, incidentally, earned the biggest applause at my screening, even more so than when the credits started rolling – have such a remarkable talent for telling a tale as much through their visuals as possible, regardless of its overall quality. Some of the most emotional moments in the film (which, to reiterate, are disappointingly few) are entirely told with no dialogue as the way that certain characters and objects are animated says it all.

That’s enough for me to conclude that The Boy and the Heron is certainly not a bad film, just slightly underwhelming in certain areas, particularly its writing. It isn’t great like many of us would have hoped, which might lead to further disappointment from hardcore Ghibli fans once they get a chance to see it, but it is at the very least dazzling to watch, which should be the bare minimum to expect from Hayao Miyazaki now that he’s back in the game after ten years.

If nothing else, it’s just cool to see an animation giant like Miyazaki at work once more, on something that is certainly flawed but no less admirable in its overall craft. Welcome back, Hayao; it’s been far too long.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Boy and the Heron is a visually dazzling return for animation giant Hayao Miyazaki after ten years of retirement, but a convoluted story and a lack of emotional engagement prevents it from being close to top-tier Studio Ghibli.

Three out of five stars

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