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‘The Boy and The Heron’: Miyazaki still has magic

Jack Travis

Miyazaki has spent years working on “The Boy and The Heron,” with many speculating it’d be his final film. But the director is reportedly already back in the studio, hammering away at whatever comes next.

 The story is set in Japan during World War II. A boy named Mahito (Luca Padovan) loses his mother to a fire in Tokyo. Afterward, his father, Shoichi (Christian Bale), marries Mahito’s aunt, Natsuko (Gemma Chan).

They leave Tokyo and take refuge in the family’s country estate. But Mahito remains traumatized by the loss of his mother and is distant toward Natsuko. At the estate, he soon finds himself harassed by a talking grey heron (Robert Pattinson).

As the heron taunts Mahito, he soon discovers an abandoned tower in the forest nearby. When Natsuko goes missing, the grey heron leads Mahito into the sealed tower where he discovers another world full of magic and violence. There, Mahito must summon his courage, work through his grief, and save his new mother.

The story presents a perfect canvas for Miyazaki to do what he’s famous for, weaving together familiar, but timeless themes of working through loss, growing up, and the destructive costs of war. It’s a sorcery he’s perfected in every film from “Nausicaa” to “The Wind Rises.”

Here you see bits and pieces of everything spectacular he’s made in other beloved movies. There are cute creatures like in “Ponyo” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” swirling sorcery like in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” other worlds like in “Spirited Away,” and the devastation of war like in “The Wind Rises.”

But he’s not just shoveling the same old stuff with nothing new to offer (looking at you, Disney). Miyazaki has brought a completely new story and memorable characters to life. And there’s tons to enjoy from dark fantasy to time travel to talking animals to healing broken families, and so much more.

“The Boy and The Heron” is ultimately a story about letting go, accepting what you can’t change in life, and not letting the good things pass you by even in moments of tragedy. There’s real staying power to these characters and lessons.

In terms of art, “The Boy and The Heron” is beautiful. Audiences will be able to find tender love and care tucked into every frame of this gorgeous gift of animation. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who has watched a film from Miyazaki before.

The opening sequences showing fire in Tokyo are haunting. The middle of the film offers Mahito a chance to see adorable creatures fly into the sky and become souls for babies in the world of the living. There’s so much color, fluidity of motion, and distinct character designs to enjoy.

On top of this, “The Boy and The Heron” offers a chilling, minimalistic, yet alluring score from composer Joe Hisaishi.

Miyazaki has shown everyone, critics and fans alike, that his magic hasn’t dissipated with age. And if he finishes the next movie at age 90, everyone will still have something spectacular to look forward to.

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Courtney Lanning is a film critic who appears weekly on <i>Ozarks At Large</i> to discuss the latest in movies.
Kyle Kellams is KUAF's news director and host of Ozarks at Large.
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