The Boy And The Heron Review
Someday, I hope to meet a very specific 4% of professional movie critics.
You see, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is my go-to movie for why Rotten Tomatoes sometimes baffles my mind. It stands, as of this writing, at a 96% on the critical aggregate website. And I swear that is down from a 97% the last time I looked it up!
Anyway, if you understand how RT works, you know that that does not mean it has an average score or rating of 96% goodness; it means, instead, that out of the 220+ critics that have rated Spirited Away on essentially a purely Pass/Fail system, 4% somehow genuinely watched that movie and said “Eh, it’s a Fail for me”.
That’s, what, nine critics? Nine of out 220-some said Spirited Away doesn’t even earn a “Pass”.
The mind reels.
I don’t even LOVE Spirited Away beyond all reason, personally; I have it as a 4.5 out of 5. It’s easily my favorite Studio Ghibli film, though, and on a technical level, it’s basically flawless. It’s the animated equivalent of Saving Private Ryan. A movie that is such an achievement–such a wonder–that I’m amazed actual human beings were able to accomplish its creation.
(Also: Saving Private Ryan is a 94% out of 148 reviews. Which ALSO means nine critics “Failed” it. In my heart I know it’s unlikely, but I REALLY hope it’s the same nine lunatics out there just rejecting objectively genius cinema)
And it’s not that I think every great movie deserves a 100% by any stretch. I can totally see how a small percentage of critics can watch a truly great film and come away focused on the weaknesses. I think Terminator 2 is the greatest action movie ever made, but I can totally see some critics not giving it a Pass.
But Spirited Away? Man, that flick is beautiful and so magnificently accomplished. That one not being at 100% makes my world spin.
Oh well. Anyway, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have a new movie that just recently came out, and it has the weight of being the 82 year old’s last film before his retirement (though he has retired before and reversed the decision, so we’ll see about that). The Boy And The Heron, the first original anime ever to have a #1 weekend at the North American box office, also set records in Japan upon its release there; it became the highest grossing opening weekend Ghibli movie of all time.
The story is of Mahito, a boy in the World War II era of Japan. His mother is killed during the bombings of Tokyo, and several years later, he and his father move to the country to live with his mother’s sister, who his father has since remarried… and with whom he is expecting a child.
There, Mahito meets a gray heron who starts telling him that his mother is not dead and that he can see her again. But others warn him that it is a trick and that gray herons are notorious liars. Mahito does not believe the heron, but he also desperately wants to see for himself if there is any way to see his mom again.
One day, he sees his stepmother, Natsuko, walk into the woods. She ends up going missing for quite some time. So while everyone else is scouring the land for her, Mahito follows her trail into the woods and to the mythical tower housed there to solve all the mysteries of his new home once and for all…
TWO UPS AND TWO DOWNS
+Imagination. It’s a Miyazaki film, so this is to be no surprise whatsoever, but as the film goes on and you see more and more of the realm inside the tower, you are left with the thought that all of his films leave you with: how does one man imagine and create all of this?
The world of The Boy And The Heron is vast and marvelous. The different layers of the tower and the story of how Mahito’s great granduncle constructed it are fascinating. Man-eating canaries. Angry, magical rocks. The warawara. The delivery room. And it just keeps building as the movie goes on, culminating in paying off an early moment of the movie that sees Mahito smash a rock into the side of his own head. It’s really breathtaking stuff.
+Another staple of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is fantastic animation. Look, there’s nothing about The Boy And The Heron that is going to confuse you with the Spider-Verse movies or even the works of Makoto Shinkai (the absolutely gorgeous Your Name or Weathering With You, for instance), but it looks exactly like how it needs to look, and it uses modern animating conventions at points when it makes sense to.
-As beautiful as the world Miyazaki creates here is–and for all the twists and turns the story takes as Mahito explores the tower looking for his stepmother–I do want to say the film runs a bit long at just over two hours. It could have stood to have lost fifteen minutes or so to tighten things up, especially in the first and third acts where things seem to slightly drag just a touch.
By the late third act, I was definitely feeling the length of this one, and even though the experience was a very good one, I was starting to wish the story would wrap up.
-There are points once we start delving into the tower with Mahito where the story gets a bit convoluted. The titular heron goes through being a cunning adversary to a reluctant ally to a bumbling antagonist and then finally to a full-on friend without much characterization showing in between role changes.
The worlds inside the tower are beautiful, but Mahito just kind of moves from weird dreamscape to weird dreamscape inside it. And with the exception of the canaries, he leaves everything between from each realm as he goes. Kiriko and the warawara, for instance, just get abandoned when he goes off with Himi, and it makes their portion of the film feel a little like filler we didn’t ultimately need.
It doesn’t make as good of use of its runtime as the aforementioned Spirited Away, but The Boy And The Heron is a stunningly good looking and wildly imaginative addition to Ghibli and Miyakazi’s legacies.