The Boy and the Beast, the latest directorial effort by rising Japanese star Mamoru Hosada, is his greatest film yet and deserves to be seen, enjoyed and analyzed by all audiences.
With the (supposed) departure of visionary anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki from the industry he helped define for Western audiences, the baton has been left for Japan’s next generation of creators. Lucky for us, there are a few who have not only picked it up, but appear to be running in extremely interesting directions with it. Mamoru Hosada is the latest, and The Boy and the Beast is his most ambitious (and enjoyable) project to date.
Miyazaki has left an indelible mark on the world of animation. We have no way of knowing whether or not directors like Hosada and his peer, Makoto Shinkai will in the same way, but in the case of The Boy and the Beast, we do not have a case of imitation so much as individualized expression by a new — and entirely unique — creative voice in the world of animation. A sense of freedom and even bravery runs throughout the film that is at once astounding and — in some spaces — ambitious to a fault.
And if that’s the worst thing you can say about a project, you’re on the right track.
The Boy and the Beast starts out simply enough. You’ve got a young, recently-orphaned protagonist who — in typical Disney or Studio Ghibli fashion — is whisked away to a magical elseworld where he inevitably comes across a surrogate parent. In this case, said parent is a beast currently in the midst of training for a highly-important — and patently silly — divine tournament of sorts.
What follows is a free-wheeling, charming film in the best of Disney traditions that grows increasingly more poignant and challenging as it progresses, displaying more of its Eastern roots in the way it subverts expectations and creates a fresh mosaic out of familiar stitching.
Early on, though I was taken with the visuals and style on display, I feared that The Boy and the Beast would fall into the realm of outright parody. Once the central relationship begins to develop, however, the film hits its groove, soaking in rich-if-familiar themes of fathers and sons before reaching for loftier heights in a third act that borders surrealism and comes away largely intact, if not better for the effort.
As a result of this narrative stretching (to tell you what it does would be to reveal major spoilers,) Hosada’s philosophical reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. A sharp change of scenery and pace in the middle portion is almost shocking in its strange normalcy. Upon reflection, however, the move is clearly intentional, like everything else in the film. In short, there’s a lot to unpack in a work that can otherwise be enjoyed as a colorful, chaotic and imminently re-watchable diversion.
In the end, thematic strings run throughout, crisscrossing often even if they never tie up in an entirely satisfactory manner. Answers are hard to come by — perhaps frustratingly so for some viewers — but the result is a truly unique experience. Every throwaway line caries a nugget of wisdom. Every character — from the rabbit-faced spiritual leader to the spastic and titular beast — is a shade of something deeper than they appear.
And even if the narrative doesn’t quite do it for you, The Boy and the Beast is visually resplendent and technically masterful, with a blend of classic, hand-drawn Japanese animation and mostly-seamless modern CGI. It may not reach the twin peaks represented by the best of Ghibli and Pixar, but Hosada and his animators have crafted a few images of such startling beauty you may be tempted to freeze it just to soak it all in for a while.
What starts as an entertaining, off-kilter animated fantasy yarn steadily evolves into a complex, lyrical and self-aware work of art. In truth, you just don’t see these sorts of films come around often.
When East meets West to form a gem like this one, we can truly appreciate both horizons.