Star Rating:

The Boy and the Heron

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Actors: Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale, Dave Bautista, Florence Pugh

Release Date: Tuesday 26th December 2023

Genre(s): Adventure, Animation, Fantasy

Running time: 123 minutes

Japan, 1943. Mahito Maki (voice of Luca Padovan) arrives in the countryside where his father Shoichi (voice of Christian Bale) is to take up the management of a aircraft factory. Mahito is still trying to process the death of his mother in a fire in Tokyo, and his father has remarried his aunt (voice of Gemma Chan). One day, Mahito finds his way into an ornate watertower when he is guided there by a talking grey heron bird (voice of Robert Pattinson), who informs him that Mahito's eccentric granduncle (voice of Mark Hamill) has sealed himself inside - and that his mother is still alive...

When it comes to a Studio Ghibli venture, the likelihood is half of it is likely to sail past you - though the experience of it is going to be something truly special. In the case of 'The Boy and the Heron', it feels as though Hayao Miyazaki has had some kind of breakthrough in therapy and decided to turn the whole thing into what is most likely his final work as a director and animator. It's not as though Mayazaki has used his work to process different aspects of his art and his life, but in 'The Boy and the Heron', there's a lot more willingness to make it weird and a lot less consideration for anyone who doesn't get it.

As a story, 'The Boy and the Heron' has all the vibrant, violent emotions of a traumatic childhood preserved and distilled into its purest form, but Mayazaki uses them in conjunction with a truly imaginative fantasy adventure involving talking birds, pirate queens, fire witches, and an unhinged vocal performance from Robert Pattinson in the co-titular role that's already becoming a sensation in certain parts of the internet. That said, if you happen to catch the subtitled version, you're missing none of the eccentricity or the raw, unhinged emotions the character goes through.

Compared to other Studio Ghibli features, there's a rawness in 'The Boy and the Heron' that feels almost intimate. Even in something like 'Spirited Away' or 'Howl's Moving Castle', there were deep and heartfelt emotions with some truly captivating and tear-jerking moments - yet none of them had the same kind of awkwardness, and willingness to sit in it as long as this does. As you can probably guess, it's a movie that is going to provoke strong reactions and is unlikely to win over anyone who isn't already a stalwart admirer of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.

Yet for all the creative stubbornness on display in 'The Boy and the Heron', there is also the mark of a distinctive artist who is uncompromising and utterly dedicated to telling the story exactly as they see it - and because no-one else obviously can. Though a clinical and conventional approach from other studio powerhouses would invariably produce a more coherent movie, it would be nowhere as awkwardly personal or as emotionally resonant as only Hayao Miyazaki could.