an animated boy sits at a counter with a tea cup, next to a human-like figure with a giant nose
The Boy and the Heron Credit: Gene Siskel Film Center

A review of the film The Boy and the Heron? More like, you had me at Miyazaki. And myself and my critic brethren aren’t the only ones—at the Chicago International Film Festival screening, there were raucous cheers at the sight of the Studio Ghibli logo.

Hayao Miyazaki staying retired was an unlikelier tale than any of his fantastical creations, but you can practically hear the zeitgeist sighing in relief at his return. His latest is certainly everything we’ve come to expect from him: a tender tale of a child coming of age in the breathtaking beauty of a natural landscape that also acts as a passageway to a stunning otherworldly realm.

The story of 11-year-old Mahito (Soma Santoki) has a smorgasbord of symbolism, even for a Studio Ghibli movie. Mahito struggles with the fiery death of his mother in a Tokyo ripped apart by war. After his father remarries his wife’s younger sister, who’s soon expecting, Mahito adopts a removed stoicism that quickly cracks after he meets a magical heron, who becomes his reluctant guide to the worlds contained in the nearby tower built by his granduncle, who is said to have become mentally unstable before he vanished.

As Mahito embarks on a search for his mother figures, there are, of course, creatures both fearsome and adorable, traveling companions who hold the key to past and future alike, all of whom act as parallels to our own world. It takes a bit too long to build, but chances are, there are few who will care about the flaws, including those symbols that don’t quite gel.

In terms of filmmakers, Miyazaki enjoys the kind of reverence that perhaps only Spielberg could match. Both men have based their careers around creating awe-inspiring worlds that act as visual feasts for viewers, with enough danger to satisfy kids and make adults feel like kids again in an environment untainted by the complications of sexuality. There’s safety in knowing that their kids will undertake a journey that becomes wholesome by the discovery that family is everything and the only force that can sustain us in a world where cruelty can feel far more inevitable than magic. 

Much like The Fabelmans, The Boy and the Heron is a flawed, yet magical semi-autobiographical tale that spins gold out of our collective dreams and nightmares, as it gives us an ultimately uplifting vision of how one of our great modern artists copes with his own impending end. PG-13, 124 min.

Gene Siskel Film Center, wide release in theaters

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