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'The Boy and the Heron' Review

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September 8, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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The Boy and the Heron had its international premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. GKIDS Films will release it in theaters on December 8, with special engagements starting on November 22.

It’s not a coincidence that Guillermo del Toro gave a brief message before the International Premiere of The Boy and the Heron aka How Do You Live?. He repeated the motif he’s been (rightfully) banging since the promotional tour for his animated Pinocchio adaptation last year, that animation is not just a genre solely meant to panderously entertain children. “Animation is film, and tonight’s film goes beyond that. Animation is hard,” he said as he expressed his enthusiasm for the film and Hayao Miyazaki.

The famed filmmaker has called it quits several times throughout his career, most notably in 2013 during the festival tour of The Wind Rises, an unconventional animated biopic on aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi that also happened to investigate Miyazaki’s legacy. It was a fitting farewell, but the press-shy director couldn’t stay away, coming back for his truly final film. It’s a supportable decision, as The Boy and the Heron is Miyazaki’s most personal film, combining several elements of his upbringing as well as statements aimed straight at his audience.

Our titular boy is 12-year-old Mahito, who’s recently lost his mother to a 1943 Tokyo fire. His dad quickly marries her sister, much to Mahito’s disapproval. The titular heron is a gray heron that flies around the new stepmother’s house. It’s taken an interest in Mahito, and in typical Miyazaki fashion, is able to speak and sets him on a quest to different worlds. Forgive the vagueness, but I’d prefer to take the stance Studio Ghibli did with their marketing of the film and reveal as little as possible.

There’s no point in going into detail about how beautiful The Boy and the Heron looks. It’s on the same level as Avatar and Gravity, every possible way to articulate the visual sumptuousness doesn’t do enough justice. There’s the intangible feeling you get knowing that so much work and love was put into every frame. You let out a sigh of relief and know that you’re in the safe hands of a master. While it can be one of the film’s minor faults, Miyazaki’s methodical pacing is a breath of fresh air compared to the hyperactivity of most works within this genre. Balancing out some of the maximalist aspects of the visuals is Joe Hisaishi’s wondrous piano score, highlighting all the pain, joy, and everything in between that comes with Mahito’s journey.

Miyazaki explores rather mature themes, offering lessons on life applicable to all ages. The boy’s fantastical journey, slightly similar to Chihiro’s from Spirited Away, is full of danger and intrigue at every turn. Animation is a medium that allows for endless possibilities, and Miyazaki is a filmmaker who pushes it to its most extreme boundaries. The question I always want to ask during a film is “What’s going to happen next?” So many movies don’t incite enough wonder for that question, nor do their answers provide the necessary satisfaction. The Boy and the Heron made me ask that question out loud more times than I can count, and each answer was filled with more passion than I could have hoped for.

There are animated films for children, and there are animated films for adults. This is an animated film for everyone, and the world is a much better place because of it. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, figures in animation history has provided us with his swan song, and now it’s time for us to continue his legacy with the pieces left behind.

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