“The Boy and the Heron” does not sidestep more fantastical elements even before Mahito enters a more fantastical plane. When he moves to the countryside, he’s greeted by a gaggle of elderly maids whose outsized features recall that of Yubaba, the witch from “Spirited Away.” And Mahito is compelled by the presence of a manmade tower in the middle of the forest that appears to have been blockaded by mystical forces; as strange as it is, it’s not in his imagination. Even in the real world, even far from the horrific explosions and attacks of the Pacific War, Mahito’s life feels like something from a surrealistic fable. Throughout “The Boy and the Heron,” we are greeted by such unforgettably weird sights, or that of a slew of frogs swarming over Mahito’s body.
But more than anything else, “The Boy and the Heron” stands out because of the intense and relatable heartbreak at its core. Mahito’s mother dies within the first few minutes of the story, and that loss is made all the more profound by how much struggle Mahito has in processing the tragedy. As remarkably weird as Miyazaki’s films can get, they also have the ability to cut through the whimsy with a shocking blend of realism. At one early point, when we see Mahito channel his grief into violence, it’s both unexpected and in keeping with how the character can barely come to terms with his new situation. The core battle that Mahito has, in having lost one mother and being forced to accept a new one (and unlike in American animated films, his father’s new wife is not an evil stepmother archetype), translates so effectively to a world of fantasy without ever sacrificing its sadness.
Thus is the power of Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli as a whole, but especially this auteur’s work, stands as a pillar of animation because they are constantly pushing the medium forward. It’s not just that “The Boy and the Heron” is a lushly and proudly hand-drawn animated film at a time when hand-drawn animated films are a rarity in the States. (That said, “The Boy and the Heron” is being presented on IMAX screens, and no doubt will look remarkable in that large-screen format.) It’s not just that “The Boy and the Heron” is able to take a handful of familiar themes from Miyazaki’s past work and utilize them in ways that feel fresh and new. And it’s not just that this film is mature in its presentation of maternal heartbreak. Miyazaki remains one of our greatest filmmakers because he utilizes the medium of animation to tell intensely personal stories that open up our eyes to grand new worlds, strange new characters, and unforgettable images. “The Boy and the Heron” is one of the year’s best films, and hopefully not his last masterpiece. Nobody does it better than Miyazaki.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10