The movie industry is generally an unforgiving one for filmmakers, and it demands that each film made either be profitable or critically acclaimed.* As a result, incompetents, nepotists, and erratic people are usually weeded out sooner or later. The ones left standing decades later are the modern masters of the art form, and it’s important to check out their work.

It’s also important to be honest with yourself on how you feel about those modern masters. Maybe Scorsese’s Raging Bull is too brutal for you. Totally cool! Maybe Kubrick leaves you cold. A valid perspective! The way you feel is the way you feel, and remember that the next time some film snob – including me! – says that something is “objectively good.” There ain’t no such thing, it’s all subjective.

The trick is to recognize and appreciate quality filmmaking, even if you’re not madly swooning over it. I’m trying to recognize it in myself. I’ve come to realize that a) Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium and b) his stuff always, always makes me a little fidgety. It’s no less true with his latest and maybe/maybe not final film The Boy and the Heron.

We’re introduced to Mahito (Luca Padovan) on possibly the worst day of his life. It’s bad enough that Japan is fighting against the Americans, and it’s bad enough that Mahito’s father Shoichi (Christian Bale) is always busy running a factory that supplies munitions for the Japanese Air Force. Worst of all is the hospital fire that claims the life of his mother. 

Mahito’s life is upended further when his father marries his deceased wife’s sister Natsuko (Gemma Chan), and they leave Tokyo for a sprawling villa in the countryside. Mahito is in a new school, one not as accepting as his old one. Natsuko is also pregnant, and now his father’s attention is stretched even further. It’s a lot of strangeness for a boy to be expected to deal with.

As it turns out, the strangeness is only just beginning. Within the estate live a group/gaggle/herd of little old ladies. They make cryptic remarks about the exceedingly odd history of the estate, about a moldering tower in a corner of the property that’s been sealed up for years, and about the mysterious disappearance of Natsuko’s Granduncle (Mark Hamill), a skilled architect who may have lost his mind.

There’s also a gray heron (Robert Pattinson) that is far more than he seems, particularly when he exposes a big set of non-birdlike teeth and begins speaking. He explains to Mahito that he just might know where Mahito’s mother truly is. Mahito embarks on a truly mythic adventure where he investigates the vanishing of the pregnant Natsuko, rides the ocean waves with fisherwoman Kiriko (Florence Pugh), and discovers the truth about the tower.

First, allow me to give you an insane piece of trivia. The Boy and the Heron had a budget of $95 million, not only making it the most expensive film in Japanese film history, but also making it significantly pricier than the $15 million budgeted Godzilla Minus One. That means that a Godzilla movie cost far less than an animated feature, and that information makes me think we’re all in the Upside Down now.**

But I’m not saying that $95 million was poorly spent. Miyazaki has, as per usual, made a jaw droppingly gorgeous film. The hand drawn animation is lush, tactile. His imagery shifts from the subtle to the surreal, encompassing armies of warlike parakeets, both the beginning and end of life, and beautiful sunsets and swaying grassland. It’s one of those movies where any random screenshot could be framed and displayed as home art. Unfortunately, the pacing suffers, particularly in the first half. I could feel a drag, and it was as if Miyazaki repeated story beats a few too many times. This is probably a good time for a mea culpa on my end, since I was baffled by a chunk of the imagery. That’s because Miyazaki drew upon Japanese folklore and symbolism, of which I’m hilariously ignorant. If you’re not a plodding dolt like me, I’m sure you’ll get more out of it.

In his screenplay, Miyazaki has used childhood memories of wartime Japan as inspiration. His family did flee to the country during bombings, and his father did help to make parts for fighter planes. It’s fitting that, as an old man, he looks back to his youth and digs deep into the emotion of his memories. We get a strong sense of Mahito’s grief and loneliness, to be sure, but this is a coming of age tale. Over the course of the film, Mahito is offered the choice to stay in a fantasyland and rule or return to a “real” world filled with pain. He makes the responsible choice. The boy learns to cast aside his selfishness, a lesson that far too many adults seem to never have learned.

I’d ordinarily talk a little bit about the acting here. To be sure, everyone does solid work, including an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson and a brief vocal appearance from Willem Dafoe as a regal bird. It’s all good, yet it remains jarring. Miyazaki makes inherently Japanese films, and it’s tonally discordant to me to hear celebrities filling out a vocal cast. With past Miyazaki films, I’ve gotten more from the viewing experience by hearing the original Japanese cast and reading the subtitles. I don’t speak a whit of Japanese, but in the past, I’ve found it a little distracting to watch an “Americanized” version of Miyazaki’s films. 

After his 2013 film The Wind Rises, Miyazaki talked of retirement, not for the first time. So the story goes, he decided to make The Boy and the Heron for his grandson. Miyazaki wanted him to understand why his beloved Grandfather wasn’t around much, what he was doing with his life, and the fact that he’ll be moving on to another plane of existence before long. If The Boy and the Heron is the period on the sentence of Miyazaki’s esteemed career, then he will have ended well.


*But mostly profitable.

**Really, it’s because the entire production ran seven years.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.