Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Written by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara, Christian Bale, Mark Hamill, Florence Pugh
Released: December 7, 2023
Grade: B

The Boy and the Heron

Technology evolves and with it, the medium of cinema.  Black and white silent films became colourful talkies.  Physical film was binned in place of digital hard drives.  Elaborate sets and miniatures were replaced with the latest CGI.  Despite the changes, there are some filmmakers with an affection for “old school” techniques.  We saw it recently from Christopher Nolan who, for Oppenheimer, shot the three-hour epic on 65mm without any digital effects.

82-year-old Hayao Miyazaki, director of the Oscar-winning Spirited Away and other great works, has stuck with a familiar approach his entire career.  In an era where almost all animated features are created using computers (Toy Story kicked it off in 1995), Miyazaki still firmly believes in hand drawn imagery and the power of the pencil.  Passionate in his beliefs, he’s gone so far to describe computer animation as an “insult to life”.          

Miyazaki has referred to The Boy and the Heron as his last movie (although he’s said that before) and, while he hasn’t given any interviews about the completed project, he’s drawn from his own upbringing in creating the story.  Set during World War II, it’s the tale of a 12-year-old boy, Mahito (Padovan), who moves to the countryside with his father following the death of his mother in a tragic hospital fire.

It’s at the new home where Mahito is whisked into an assortment of alternate worlds which feature a conniving heron, nasty parakeets, a helpful maid, and a wise wizard.  They provide Mahito with life lessons while guiding him back home.  Miyazaki has a knack for creating weird, wonderful characters but these folk are a notch below what we’ve seen in prior works.

There are two version of The Boy and the Heron screening in Australian cinemas – one with the original Japanese actors/dialogue, and one dubbed into English during Hollywood actors.  I saw the later and the cast includes the distinctive voices of Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale, Gemma Chan, Florence Pugh, and Willem Dafoe.  Regardless of which translation you watch, it’s hard not to be wowed by the animation (a delivery room scene involving wind swept paper is a highlight), and the delicate music score of long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi. 

The weakness here is the narrative.  It’s a weird mix of storylines which don’t generate humour and/or emotion until the final 20 minutes or so.  I was hoping for a more engaging adventure in the same vein as Spirited Away (which I must have watched a dozen times by now).  Perhaps there’s deeper material I’ll appreciate more on a second viewing but for the moment, The Boy and the Heron is fine as opposed to fantastic.