We’re lucky to live in an era where we can see a new film from Hayao Miyazaki. The 82-year-old Japanese filmmaker is a legend, with classics like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle under his beard. It’s been ten years since Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises, and he has come out of retirement for his latest, The Boy and the Heron. It’s easy to see why this animated fantasy film has garnered universal acclaim from the critics and audiences who have been fortunate enough to see it already. But my feelings are more mixed than anything.
Anyone who has seen this film will tell you how gorgeous it is. This movie is years in the making, with Miyazaki lovingly crafting every frame of this passion project. There is skill beyond words behind the scenes. With an animated film, particularly one from Studio Ghibli, nobody is putting in sloppy work. Every frame of The Boy and the Heron is magnificent. It’s a visual spectacle with gorgeous textures that need to be seen in a theater. The film evokes a sense of wonder and mystery typical of a Miyazaki movie. As our protagonist Mahito ventures into the unknown, you always wonder where these paths will lead him and what past events created the places he walks through.
An early scene features Mahito’s mother dying in a hospital fire. He could not stop it from happening, and his regret and grief define him. Mahito’s father remarries his late wife’s younger sister Natsuko. For much of the first act, it appears that this will be the emotional core. You get a sense of their tension as Mahito struggles to accept his pregnant stepmother.
However, she disappears from the film early on. The Boy and the Heron then embarks on an adventure that only briefly touches upon that storyline. The character moments between Mahito and Natsuko lack the impact and memorability the storyline deserves.
The Boy and the Heron wants you to be invested in many different relationships as Mahito meets many people on his journey. He meets a seafarer named Kiriko, a woman with magical powers named Himi, and his great-uncle. While each of his relationships with them could have been unique and fascinating, we don’t get to learn enough about the supporting characters for them to leave an impact. The character relationships feel more hollow than they should, especially with an adventure narrative that relies on these relationships to feel impactful.
Instead, The Boy and the Heron bombards you with many fantastical creatures. At the center of it all is a heron who tells Mahito his mother is still alive. This leads Mahito down a fascinating path. He needs to know if his mom is alive, and his journey leads him into a new world full of fantastical creatures.
Some pieces of imagery are surprisingly graphic, with characters and ideas that sometimes feel out of place with the rest of the film. There are dark, disturbing ideas littered throughout. However, the movie never lingers on them long enough to take you out of the experience.
But a lack of emotional resonance does hold the film back. We never see Mahito’s mother before her death. Although you understand why Mahito is fighting so hard to see his mother again, knowing her prior to death would give us more room to grieve. As it stands, we never have a clear idea of who she even was.
The choices Mahito makes in pursuit of his goal are another strong aspect of The Boy and the Heron, but his skill is not. We don’t get endeared to Mahito, nor do we have any reason to latch onto him beyond our pity for him. And although the final moments between Mahito and Himi are touching, the journey to get there is not particularly effective. The ending had all the ingredients to be wonderful, but it fell short.
The Boy and The Heron is an aesthetically rich but emotionally uncertain film. As it stands, it’s sure to have fans and defenders — it is a Ghibli movie, after all. For me, the lack of emotional resonance detracted from the overall experience and left me longing for a more fleshed-out film.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 5 equates to “Mediocre.” The positives and negatives wind up negating each other, making it a wash.
Disclosure: ComingSoon attended the New York Film Festival for our The Boy and the Heron review.