“The Boy and the Heron”
CRITIC’S PICK: We can be grateful that Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement didn’t stick. The legendary Japanese animator and Studio Ghibli co-founder announced in 2013 that his final film would be The Wind Rises. Miyazaki’s elegiac account of an aviation engineer seemed like a suitable career capstone for the flight-obsessed filmmaker. But I like to imagine Miyazaki a few months into retirement, puttering around his home and then exclaiming “Wait! I forgot to make a masterpiece about birds!”
Opening Dec. 8 in the United States, The Boy and the Heron isn’t just for the birds, but both a magical quest and an emotional journey for its young protagonist. As one would expect from the director of Spirited Away and other landmarks in animation, The Boy and the Heron is a film of remarkable richness, balancing wild imagination with subtle insights into human behavior.
Mahito is possibly Miyazaki’s saddest and most damaged hero, still grieving his mother’s death in a Tokyo hospital fire in the nightmarish prologue. A year later, his father moves them to a large country house, where Mahito rejects the kindness of his new stepmother. Early on, Mahito strikes himself in the head with a rock to avoid school, so for most of the film he has a partially shaved head wrapped with a large bandage, representing both his wounded soul and his stubborn determination.
Mahito realizes that he’s being watched by a mysterious heron who unexpectedly reveals the ability to talk (voiced by Robert Pattinson in the film’s English-language dub). One of Miyazaki’s most memorable characters, the heron has elegant design and movements that belie his coarse, untrustworthy personality. When Mahito’s stepmother goes missing, the titular boy and the heron become extremely reluctant partners on a mission to find her in the spirit world.
Despite the downbeat premise, The Boy and the Heron includes whimsical delights, like the seven old ladies who work on the estate and offer an obvious wink at Disney’s seven dwarfs. The film’s weirder, wilder creations include hulking, man-sized parakeets who clutch meat cleavers and prove both comical and menacing. Miyazaki keeps bringing The Boy and the Heron back to themes of grappling with mortality and legacy to find inner peace. The film’s Japanese title, How Do You Live? indicates the concerns of the 82 year-old filmmaker.
While the storyline has parallels to Spirited Away, in some ways it feels closer akin to Howl’s Moving Castle. The 2004 antiwar fantasy showed a tendency to introduce more mind-blowing ideas than the audience could absorb. Heron similarly throws in new characters and concepts up to the minute, such as a Parakeet King (voiced by Dave Bautista), who plays an unexpectedly pivotal role for such a late arrival.
Howl and Heron both can feel overstuffed, but that may be deliberate on Miyazaki’s part, as if he’s more interested in creating an emotional experience for the viewer than a logical one. Perhaps, after making films for decades, he has confidence that viewers can keep up with him without hand-holding. The director has hinted that he has another film in him, but even if The Boy and the Heron is his last film, it makes a great swan song. — Curt Holman
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