Movie Review | 'The Boy and the Heron' 

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There's a grave misconception in moviegoing that animation is strictly for children (much to the continued chagrin of Guillermo del Toro). Whether you've seen one Hayao Miyazaki movie or are a scholar of Studio Ghibli work, you know he often makes movies about children — yet maybe not always for them. His latest, "The Boy and the Heron," is a movie that fits snugly in his oeuvre.

Before an image appears on screen, there's a loud blast, with sirens appearing moments later. It's an ominous way to start a movie, but immediately sets the stage the Japanese anime master has in store for his latest project. The plot is set during World War II and begins with young Mahito (Soma Santoki) learning from his father (Takuya Kimura) that the hospital where his mother is has been bombed and is on fire. Mahito's mother does not survive.

Four years go by, and Mahito and his father leave Tokyo for a quieter life elsewhere. Mahito's father informs him he's getting remarried to Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). Mahito spends the early portion of the movie not saying much because he has experienced more in his preteens and early teenage years than most do in a lifetime. He's overwhelmed, living through the grief of losing his mom and contending with a father who is moving forward. He begins getting visited by a heron, which progresses from showing up at his window to summoning him on an adventure. Where they go from there could only exist in Miyazaki's mind.

While "The Boy and the Heron" is a rich text, the superseding theme is grief and loss. Mahito is haunted by images of his mother and when the mysterious heron tells him, "I shall guide you to your mother," Mahito knows this is unlikely. "He says my mother is alive,” Mahito says in voiceover. “I know it's a lie but I have to see." He is curious about something he knows is unlikely, but his long standing heartbreak can't afford skepticism. So, he traverses different worlds with the heron.

The imagery in "The Boy and the Heron" is a stark juxtaposition between the occasional bleak setting and the brightly drawn characters. As heavy as the film can be, Miyazaki knows how to craft a gorgeous adventure and blends fanciful moments in between the more shattering ones. Miyazaki has stated this could be his last film, but has also created some ambiguity as to whether that's actually true. Sometimes the movie feels like he is trying to get every last idea out of his imagination — which has a tendency to overwhelm the plot, but never takes away from the visual experience.

"The Boy and the Heron" offers an English-dubbed version, with a starry cast including Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Gemma Chan, Mark Hamill, Robert Pattinson and Florence Pugh, among others. Watching the Japanese version offers the more authentic experience without familiar and distinct celebrity voices detracting from Miyazaki's story. Should "The Boy and the Heron" indeed be the 82-year-old filmmaker's last directing project, no one can ever say he lost his touch.

Matt Passantino is a contributing writer to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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