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Studio Ghibli’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is an antiquated portal to the past

Studio Ghibli’s ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is an antiquated portal to the past
If you’ve been yearning for a new Studio Ghibli film by iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, ‘The Boy and the Heron’ is exactly what you want. (Photo: Studio Ghibli)

‘The Boy and the Heron’ is iconic filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s first new animated fantasy adventure in a decade. It’s also this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature Film. The question, though, is whether it’s a genuine masterpiece, or whether critics and fans are forever dazzled by Studio Ghibli’s creative legacy.

It has been over a decade now since a Studio Ghibli film spearheaded by iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki was released, with the last being 2013’s The Wind Rises. The latest offering, The Boy and the Heron, delivers exactly what fans could want: sumptuous hand-drawn visuals, a mix of the whimsical and the weird, and a final, lingering feeling of hope.

The Boy and the Heron won this year’s Academy Award for Animated Feature Film, signalling its quality, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a distinct throwback experience. It represents the past of animation, not the future, and with closer inspection, it demonstrates some fundamental structural flaws.

The Boy and the Heron

‘The Boy and the Heron’. (Photo: Studio Ghibli)

The Boy and the Heron

The Parakeet King in ‘The Boy and the Heron’. (Image: Studio Ghibli)

Coming across as Pan’s Labyrinth by way of Alice in Wonderland, with a dash of Piranesi, The Boy and the Heron liberally samples from Miyazaki’s own biography, with adolescent Mahito Maki relocating from Tokyo to the family’s country estate during World War 2. Along with that adjustment, Mahito is struggling to accept his aunt Natsuko as his new mother, despite the fact she married his widowed father and is already pregnant. Matters come to a head when Natsuko disappears, and evidence points to the ruins of an old tower associated with strange events. Through the building, Mahito enters a fantastical universe that straddles life and death, and he’s alternatively helped and taunted by a trickster figure in the form of a grey heron.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that the English-language dubbed version of The Boy and the Heron has assembled an all-star voice cast. This includes the likes of Robert Pattinson, Florence Pugh, Gemma Chan, Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Willem Dafoe, Karen Fukuhara and Mark Hamill.

The Boy and the Heron’s biggest problem is that its set-up is so leisurely.

The film is half-over before Mahito enters the other world and the hero’s adventures from this point feel rushed. It’s hard not to compare to, say, Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s other Oscar winner, where heroine Chihiro is quickly set up in the bathhouse with the clear goal of saving her parents. Because The Boy and the Heron has so many creature encounters and events to squeeze in, there’s no breathing room for conversation or response that feels natural. Mahito achieves his heart’s desire at one point and does not react at all, smothering the poignancy of the moment.

The Boy and the Heron

‘The Boy and the Heron’ has sumptuous hand-drawn visuals. (Photo: Studio Ghibli)

The Boy and the Heron

‘The Boy and the Heron’ leaves the audience with a lingering feeling of hope. (Photo: Studio Ghibli)

It is fun to see a role reversal in a Miyazaki film, where a male audience-insert protagonist is paired with a magical female character for a change, but The Boy and the Heron leaves viewers shut out emotionally.

It doesn’t seem fair to point the finger at cultural differences either, as Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume (which didn’t score an Oscar nod but was nominated alongside The Boy the Heron at this year’s Annie Awards) is highly relatable and emotive, and features many similar storytelling ingredients to Ghibli movies.

On that note, there’s a strong feeling throughout The Boy and the Heron that one is watching an animated film from a previous era. It doesn’t come across as dated, per se, but it is lacking in contemporary sensibilities — which does cast a shadow over it being named the top genre entry in the year 2024.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Full list of Oscar winners at the 96th Academy Awards

At one point, Mahito is invited to become the custodian of the fantasy world, given the freedom to shape it to his will, and while Miyazaki has indicated no plans to retire, the scene can be interpreted as his passing of the baton to a younger generation of animators, like Shinkai.

As The Boy and the Heron ends abruptly and with minimal satisfaction, one has to question whether it is a bad thing really to move forward, retaining the knowledge gained by earlier lessons, but otherwise undertaking new journeys and trying new paths. DM

‘The Boy and the Heron’. (Photo: Studio Ghibli)

Following a premiere in Japan back in July 2023, and a release in the US on 8 December, The Boy and the Heron finally arrived in South African cinemas on 19 April, with alternating subbed and dubbed screenings.

This story was first published on PFangirl.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Derrick Brak says:

    I’m curious why the writer takes such issue with the film’s classical style. I would call it timeless, rather than ‘antiquated’. Not sure what makes it feel like a film “from a previous era.” It’s thematically rich, the emotions run deep, and the animation itself is as stunning and surreal as anything he has done. I do agree that it can feel overstuffed at times, at the expense of some major emotional beats, but it feels like a film that would reward second and third viewings.

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