The Boy and The Heron Review: Do Giant Birds and White Blobs Make Miyazaki’s Latest a Must-Watch?

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Thomas Richards
| December 19, 2023
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It’s difficult to find a person more revered in the anime industry than Hayao Miyazaki. Throughout his storied career with Studio Ghibli, he has created banger after banger anime films that have touched the hearts of people around the world. But, the man doesn’t know the meaning of the word rest and is always cooking up something new, even if he says he’s retired. With his last film, The Wind Rises, released in 2013, it was only a matter of time before he’d create something again. This brings us to 2023 and the latest Miyazaki film to be released, The Boy and The Heron. While the film is a visual masterpiece and the characters are enjoyable, the odd pacing and story may hamper your enjoyment.

A Personal Tale

Mahito is staring angrily. The wind is strongly blowing with leaves flying everywhere. A house is in the background.
Time to get serious. (Studio Ghibli)

The Boy and The Heron takes place in WW2-era Japan. During the Tokyo Firebombing, our main character, Mahito, loses his mother in the fires. After running to try and save his mother, all he sees is her hospital going up in flames. Several years later, Mahito and his father move to the countryside to be with his father’s new wife, Natsuko (also his dead mother’s sister). Mahito struggles to adapt to his new life and gets into a fight on his first day of school. To make matters worse for the young lad, a grey heron taunts him whenever he’s at home, but no one seems to do anything about it. But when Natsuko goes missing, and the grey herons’ constant taunting gets the better of Mahito, he sets out to find Natsuko and come to terms with his changing life.

On paper, the story of The Boy and The Heron is excellent, but execution is another matter altogether. While I was able to understand the story’s basic premise, the meaning behind it and how it all connected was something I had to find out after the fact. The aspect of Mahito learning to move on from the past and accept change was something I thought was a stretch when I finished watching the film, and I only fully agreed with that answer after reading interviews with Miyazaki. The pacing was also all over the place; the film felt way longer than two hours. Granted, I enjoyed every moment, but I wish the story felt more cohesive. It did some of the great characters a disservice.

A Star-Studded Cast

Mahito and the heron are looking at each other. The heron is in his human form and has a giant nose. They're sitting at a table with cups in front of them.
I swear the guy on the right is a bird. (Studio Ghibli)

Like a lot of Studio Ghibli films, the cast of The Boy and The Heron was filled with big names who turned in amazing performances. The one that stuck out to me was Robert Pattinson as the titular heron. If I hadn’t known beforehand, I wouldn’t have guessed that was his voice. He does an impeccable job in the role, and I hope he gets to explore voice acting further; he’s got a knack for it. Luca Padovan as Mahito was another excellent performance, and his character growth throughout the film is subtle but well done. I also have to mention that the legend himself, Mark Hamill, is in this film, playing the Granduncle, who is the catalyst for much of what happens in the film.

The rest of the cast is also excellent, with the likes of Florence Pugh, Gemma Chan, Christian Bale, and even Willem Dafoe giving it their all. Christian Bale, in particular, sounded like he was having a lot of fun playing Shoichi Maki (Mahito’s father). Dave Bautista was also hilarious as The Parakeet King, and I wish he were in the film longer than the final 30 minutes. Overall, the performances and characters kept me engaged throughout the film, even when I got lost and confused with the plot. This film shows that big-name Hollywood actors can do well in voice acting if they care enough to give it their all.

Visual Spectacle

Himi is holding Mahito's hand as they fly through a red corridor of fire. Some flames are on parts of Mahito's body.
Travelling through fire. (Studio Ghibli)

If you watch a Miyazaki film, you know you will be in for a masterclass in animation; The Boy and The Heron is no different. Everything in the film is beautifully hand-drawn and looks fantastic, with even the tiny details like hands and cooking looking stellar. The attention to detail in the environment is second to none, with every blade of grass and every drop of water being expertly crafted. That’s not even getting into some of the weirder stuff that shows up late in the film, like a whole society of giant parakeets that look adorably terrifying. Then you have the Warawara’s, who are little white blobs that are just happy to be there. Every character, creature, and setting in this film is excellent, but that’s expected when it comes to Miyazaki.

I didn’t give the music much thought before seeing the film. I was so focused on the animation and cast that it wasn’t on my radar. But I was impressed when that piano hit once the heron appeared and the following track started. The score isn’t that prevalent compared to other films, but The Boy and The Heron utilises its soundtrack in ways that elevate the emotion in a scene. There’s an example of this towards the end of the film, and without spoilers, it left me in disbelief at what I was hearing and watching. Even though, at this point, I had kinda checked out of the story, the combination of the animation and music made me feel shocked, sad and elated all at the same time.

A large group of Warawara's are running forward. They all have happy faces and some have fallen over and are also rolling.
Look at them. They’re just lil guys. (Studio Ghibli)

The Boy and The Heron isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a darn pretty one. The characters are great, and the voice cast brought their A-game. It’s a visual spectacle with a soundtrack that is just as impactful. It’s a shame then that a lot of my enthusiasm (and I had a lot) was impacted by the story that I had to read interviews and wikis just to understand what was going on. If you’re a fan of animation, give The Boy and The Heron a look. It’ll be a treat for your eyes and ears if nothing else.

Have you seen The Boy and The Heron? What did you think? Did you understand the plot? Let us know in the comments where we can talk about how we need plushies of the Warawara now!

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