Review: Iconic Animator Hayao Miyazaki Gifts Us a Magical, Meaningful The Boy and the Heron

Last week, I waxed poetic about the latest documentary from the legendary Frederick Wiseman, who at 93 is still making some of the most vital work of his decades-long career. A spring chicken compared to Wiseman, the iconic animation filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki at 82 continues to write and direct layered and moving fantastical, semi-autobiographical works that cover everything including life, death, mythology, imagination, the creative spirit, and, in the case of his new work, The Boy and the Heron, the binding power of friendship.

Miyazaki is never afraid to go deep or metaphysical or surreal, and while his films all feel perfectly safe for kids, his catalog plays more for adults who remember the simpler days of being young. However, in the case of The Boy and the Heron, he recalls some of the pain of childhood, when a young boy named Mahito (voiced by Soma Santoki) rushes to the hospital where his mother works only to see it completely engulfed in flames. Memories of his mother follow him throughout the film, and not all of them are pleasant as his dreams attempt to help him process this traumatic event. He ends up being shipped to a new home, where his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) is living with his second wife Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), who seems very kind, even though Mahito barely speaks to her. He’s respectful to her but frequently leaves the confines of their spacious home to explore the grounds that surround the property, which includes what appears to be a rundown, closed-off castle, built by someone known as the Granduncle, who created the castle as something of a portal to another plane of existence.

Mahito is guided toward and through this plane by a mischievous part-heron, part-man (Masaki Suda), who frequently blends truth and lies. When his pregnant stepmother (who might also be his mother’s sister; still unclear about that) disappears, seemingly taken into the castle, Mahito goes into it looking for her and is befriended by a fisherwoman named Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki), who leads him to the mysterious and fire-controlling Lady Himi (Aimyon), who may have more of a connection to Mahito than he initially realizes.

The Boy and the Heron is a wisely spun tale that features a small army of characters, including seven old women who help the stepmother take care of her residence, and a village populated by blood-thirsty parakeets led by a king who wants to wrestle power from the Granduncle, who is himself prepared to turn over control of this fantastical land to Mahito. If you strip away the fantasy elements, it’s a film about a boy desperate to have one last moment with his mother so he can move on with his life, but Miyazaki piles on vibrant layers of visuals and deeper meaning to every scene.

Things get downright terrifying at times, especially in the final third of the movie. And other times, they are so sweet, you’re almost guaranteed to weep openly. And the added bonus, from what I’ve heard, is that the English-language dub (which features such luminaries as Christian Bale, Mark Hamill, Gemma Chan, Willem Dafoe, and Dave Bautista) is actually just as lively and solid as the Japanese-language version (in most locations where The Boy and the Heron is playing, you can select showtimes for both versions); I can’t wait to see it. “Magical” almost seems like too easy a label to slap on a Miyazaki film. The worlds he creates are so tactile that they don’t feel made of magic, but more seem like an inventive variation on reality, and I hope he never stops gracing us with his work.

The film in now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.