Hayao Miyazaki’s newest movie is the stuff of dreams. Billed in English as The Boy and the Heron, this fantasy epic remained in obscurity until about a week before its US debut: there were no promotional materials, and there was no trailer until recently. Despite this total lack of publicity, I was perhaps more excited for this film than any other in the festival. It’s centered on a young boy coming to terms with the death of his mother, and how we all eventually have to bid adieu to the dreamlike kingdoms we make for ourselves. It may be too disjointed to have the same breathtaking impact as his previous 'final movie,' The Wind Rises (2013), but this somehow feels like a more fitting goodbye from Miyazaki. In every gorgeous shot, and in the script itself, we see a creator contemplating his legacy, wondering what will come of the fantasies he's helped spin.
Miyazaki's juggling a lot of elements here, and while I don't think he has enough connective tissue to thoroughly explore these heavy themes with the depth they deserve, it still makes for a compelling watch. Showing us a bit more of Mahito's grieving process might have helped set up the ending a bit more; but Miyazaki's hitting on something tonally here that feels somewhere between The Wind Rises and Spirited Away. If his previous film was about exploring the nature of dreams, how they're corrupted (and redeemed), this movie feels like a heartfelt look at the dreamers: their worries, their struggles, and how those things help shape the worlds they create. In a very real sense, this feels like one of his most personal movies. A man nearing the end of a groundbreaking, storied career looking back before tentatively walking forward. This emotional weight is further centered by some of the most beautiful visuals you can hope to see.
The painstaking visuals of this movie do a lot to make audiences feel invested in the story. Hand-drawn, as every Miyazaki film is, each frame in this film is imbued with a human touch that injects a ton of emotion into the viewing experience. While the writing leaves something to be desired, the animation perhaps makes up for that by making you feel just how much care went into all the little details. As Mahito is whisked away by a talking heron to a magical world where he meets a young girl who just might be the key to overcoming his demons, viewers can't help but feel the full spectrum of human emotion. Combined with the tender, evocative score (the best of the year, in my opinion), it’s enough to make us feel and think so much, which is what all art should aspire to do.
While I do wish the people populating this ethereal film were explored a bit more deeply, this would be a wonderful swansong to one of the best careers film has ever seen. From his big screen debut to now, Hayao Miyazaki has completely changed the landscape of cinema, offering moments of contemplative stillness in a world that seems to only grow faster. There's already talk that he's started working on his next one, but with his age and how long it takes to create a hand-drawn animated feature, there's no telling if this will be his last. Much like Mahito eventually learns, all we can do is enjoy life for what it is, and strive to be better versions of ourselves all the while. I really hope you watch it in theaters on December 8th. Posing many questions about family, death and grief, it’s a watch that will make you laugh, cry, and think long after credits roll. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!