Saturday, April 20, 2024

Movie review: Is “The Boy and the Heron” meant for me and you?

MosaicMovie review: Is “The Boy and the Heron” meant for me and you?

Co-Managing Mosaic Editor

“Howl’s Moving Castle (2004),” “Ponyo (2008),” “Spirited Away (2001),” “My Neighbor Totoro (1988).” If you don’t recognize at least one of these animated films created by the genius director Hayao Miyazaki and his company Studio Ghibli, where have you been?

Miyazaki’s animations have received record-breaking success in both his home country of Japan and the Western world. Household names have starred in the English dubs of Miyazaki’s films. “Ponyo” alone features Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Matt Damon, among others, and his latest venture — “The Boy and the Heron,” — won the director his first Golden Globe.

However, Golden Globe-winning status and preceding reputation aside, “The Boy and the Heron” garnered a lot of hype for another reason. It was rumored to be the 83-year-old animation legend’s final feature film.

While those working around him have since denied these rumors surrounding his retirement, the notion that “The Boy and the Heron” was Miyazaki’s last work was still going strong when I went to see the film during its opening week. It was part of the reason why I went to see the movie in theaters rather than wait for it to hit streaming platforms. If this was Miyazaki’s last theatrical release, I was certainly not going to miss it. But I suppose Ghibli fans will simply have to wait and see whether or not the animator has more in store for us.

I digress. The bottom line is that my expectations going into this film were through the roof. I love Studio Ghibli’s animation style along with many of the stories Miyazaki has created. And, for all I know, this could be his final full-length movie. But I’ve got to say it – I walked out of the theater feeling very underwhelmed.

Studio Ghibli’s signature artistry and effects, inclusion of both loveable and laughable creatures and intimate focus on family and war are all present in this film. All of these aspects were amazing, per usual with anything Miyazaki-directed. However, I can’t say that all of these elements were intertwined in the most effective way possible for the most memorable (or even just plain old entertaining) plot.

Taking place during wartime, the film follows an 11-year-old boy named Mahito Maki and his quickly changing surroundings after his mother’s death. At the beginning of the movie, only a year after his mother dies, Mahito has to move to a new town with his father, who has since remarried his deceased wife’s younger sister.

Still grieving, Mahito is thrown into a new home, new school and new family, as it is revealed that his aunt-turned-mother is also pregnant. But adjusting to his new reality is not the only problem Mahito faces. When his stepmother disappears into a closed-off portion of the family’s property, reality isn’t at all as it seems as Mahito enters a world of magic (and talking parakeets).

This is where my gripe with the plot comes into play. The magical world Mahito enters, which defies the laws of both space and time, clearly has a lot of symbolic and abstract elements to be deciphered in all of its colorful imagery. But to try to decipher any of those meanings in a movie theater as the main character moves on with haste is quite tiresome and practically impossible for the average moviegoer (i.e., me). The film’s visuals are very fantastical and pleasing to the eye, though.

The cute, round spirit creatures called “Warawara” are adorable. The humanoid parakeets (who want a militant world order?) are quite funny. Mahito encounters all of these during his search for his stepmother, along with a young girl named Himi. But I feel that none of them ended up playing as important of a role as they could have. The grand reveal made at the end about Mahito’s relationship with Himi, along with the ultimate choice he is given by the creator of the magical realm, didn’t feel nearly as grand or ultimate as I thought they should’ve.

The film’s ending, while wholesome, left me wishing that everything had happened more dramatically – within the plot, I mean, since the animation (especially during a certain world-ending scene) did everything it was supposed to and then some.

While my initial reaction to the story was lukewarm, further thought about the film and its themes made me realize that maybe the reason I didn’t take to it so well is because I can’t.

Fantastical elements aside, aspects of Mahito’s character are inspired by Miyazaki’s life. Miyazaki grew up during World War II, and he too had to relocate from the city to the countryside as the war progressed. At 83 years old, he is a skilled, impassioned artist and storyteller, and as evident as the themes of life and death are in this movie, I imagine how Miyazaki chooses to pour his emotions and thoughts about these themes into a semi-autobiographical film at his age is beyond me. Even beyond most people, I would assume.

So no, this film was not the 10/10 theatrical masterpiece that I was hoping for. But as a letter to the world from a master of his craft nearing the end of an astounding career (an astounding life, if we’re being honest) — as a profound message about dreams, grief and love in all of its various forms — this might just be a 10/10.




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