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film review
  • The Boy and the Heron
  • Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
  • Featuring the voices of Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda and Yoshino Kimura
  • Classification PG; 124 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Dec. 8

Critic’s Pick

To be clear: The Boy and the Heron is absolutely not Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. The master Japanese filmmaker, whose animation giant Studio Ghibli has entertained the world over with such instant classics as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, might have played and then unplayed the retirement card before (three times, actually, showing Tom Brady who’s boss). But this time, the 82-year-old director and his creative partners are adamant that he’s back. Pinky-swear, with a teary piano score cherry on top.

This promise might be easier to accept were it not for The Boy and the Heron playing like the most “final” film to ever be finalized. A sweeping and majestic work that trades on the familiar themes and visual flourishes that encompass Miyazaki’s daydream cinema, the director’s animated tale arrives in theatres practically screaming “last will and testament.” This is an achingly sincere act of storytelling from an artist who seems concerned about what the world that he helped build will look like when he is gone. If this isn’t a goodbye, it is certainly a “don’t you forget about me.”

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Which no viewer of The Boy and the Heron could possibly be in danger of doing, given how both beautiful and confounding it is. The story opens at the height of the Second World War in Tokyo, where a boy named Mahito (Soma Santoki) loses his mother during an Allied bombing. But the red-hot hell of that incident is replaced by the bucolic blue skies of the countryside, where Mahito and his father move a year later.

Life isn’t any easier, though. While he now has a kind stepmother named Natskuo – who also happens to be his late mother’s younger sister – Mahito cannot help but feel out of place and trapped in grief, troubles exacerbated by bullies at school and the news of Natsuko’s pregnancy. But one day, Mahito encounters a talking grey heron (Masaki Suda, all crotchety grumpiness) flying around his family’s property, and suddenly his world opens up into an alternate reality where time and space converge.

There is more – so much more – to the various realms that Mahito discovers while chasing after the heron (who is a Lewis Caroll-esque white rabbit in all but its shade). But the exact details and differentiating strands of Miyazaki’s alternate realities quickly start to swirl together into a fantastical concoction that can be challenging to choke down. The director seems so energized by the boundless possibilities of his own (admittedly awesome) imagination that the film begins to simply collect wild ideas and stack them one on top of the other instead of threading them into a single coherent story.

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The Boy and the Heron is a sweeping and majestic work that trades on the familiar themes and visual flourishes that encompass Miyazaki’s daydream cinema.TIFF

In addition to the heron (whose animal guise merely masks a second, more ornery and rather disgusting human persona), Mahito must tussle with fascist parakeets, magical space rocks and a horde of unborn children called Warawara, which look like a cross between Nintendo’s pink-puff cutie Kirby and those dastardly Minions. It is all wildly fascinating and often visually enchanting to take in, but following Mahito’s path from one cosmic landscape to another requires either a heightened attention span or a wicked suspension of narrative disbelief.

Perhaps the story’s creases are ironed out in the English-dubbed version of the film featuring the voice of Robert Pattinson as the heron, and which will be released in Canadian theatres simultaneously with the original Japanese-language version. But there is no translating to be done on the awkward tone of the film, which veers between shockingly violent darkness and tear-stained heartache.

Still, the occasional incomprehensibility of Mahito’s journey doesn’t wipe away the film’s beauty – the animation here is as arresting as ever – nor the profound sense of responsibility and regret that courses through Miyazaki’s script. This is the work (final or not) of an artist deeply concerned with injecting magic into moviegoers’ everyday realities, while also recognizing the natural tragedy that, eventually, such wonders will cease. It is tender, true and – depending on your interpretation, or understanding, of the finale – intensely heartbreaking.

Released as How Do You Live? in Japan – a far better summation of the film’s focus on moving on from tragedy, if not as kid-friendly a title as The Boy and the Heron – Miyazaki’s film marks a grand stamp on a career that has changed lives a million times over. And if the director gets to do it over again in a few years, too, who’s to complain?

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