The Boy and the Heron First Reviews: Masterfully Animated Fantasy on Par with Miyazaki's Best

Critics at TIFF say the animation legend's final film is breathtakingly gorgeous, even by his own standards, and feels like a warm, comforting throwback to older Studio Ghibli films.

by | September 8, 2023 | Comments

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Following his latest temporary retirement, Hayao Miyazaki returns with The Boy and the Heron, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Expectedly, the first reviews of the Japanese animated feature are unanimously positive. However, not all critics can agree on where the film ranks within the director’s filmography, and most accept that its story is a little weird and convoluted, even for Miyazaki. For fans of the animator and Studio Ghibli in general, however, the fantastical visuals and familiar themes of The Boy and the Heron will be a delight, even if it’s not Miyazaki’s best.

Here’s what critics are saying about Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron:

Is this one of Miyazaki’s best films?

“With The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki has produced one of his best films to date.” – Alicia Haddick, The Verge

“There’s a strong chance that The Boy and the Heron will actually be Miyazaki’s last film. If that’s true, animation’s maestro is going out at the top of his game.” – Barry Levitt, The Daily Beast

“I’m not sure where The Boy and the Heron will eventually fall on my list of Miyazaki favorites, but there were moments that took my breath away.” – Matt Schley, Japan Times

The Boy And The Heron does not quite reach the heights of Miyazaki’s greatest achievements.” – Tim Grierson, Screen International

The Boy and the Heron isn’t Miyazaki’s best film. It lacks the full kineticism of The Castle of Cagliostro, the fury of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the adventure of Castle in the Sky, the Totoro of My Neighbor Totoro, the effervescence of Kiki’s Delivery Service, the romance of Porco Rosso, the grandeur of Princess Mononoke, the beguilement of Spirited Away, the floridness of Howl’s Moving Castle, the hamminess of Ponyo, or the emotional mega-wattage of The Wind Rises.” – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

Image from The Boy and the Heron (2023)

(Photo by GKIDS)

Will Miyazaki’s fans be happy with his return, either way?

The Boy and The Heron is a glorious testament to everything that makes Miyazaki Miyazaki.” – Barry Levitt, The Daily Beast

“The film evokes characters and themes from elsewhere in Miyazaki’s work that Studio Ghibli aficionados will enjoy dissecting.” – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“This film feels thematically and visually like a lost piece of mid-2000s Ghibli media resurfaced from a vault and thrown onto cinema screens.” – Alicia Haddick, The Verge

“Miyazaki has few surprises left, but in The Boy and the Heron, it’s the familiar that feels like a comforting hug.” – Radheyan Simonpillai, Guardian

“’A lot’s strange about this place,’ a character notes early in The Boy And The Heron, a declaration that will be warmly received by the filmmaker’s adoring throngs who savour his trips into the surreal.” – Peter Debruge, Variety

“On the surface, all of this is par for the course for a Miyazaki film, with trace elements from Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, or Kiki’s Delivery Service.” – Cezary Jan Strusiewicz, Polygon

“There are numerous Easter eggs from Miyazaki’s past works strewn throughout the film, even if the plethora of ideas occasionally distracts from the storytelling.” – Emma Steen, Time Out

“True to form, The Boy and the Heron proves unpredictable, but it’s also within the realm of Miyazaki’s earlier work, which is both comforting and slightly disappointing.” – Peter Debruge, Variety

Is the film reminiscent of any of his past work?

Spirited Away, especially, often comes to mind.” – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“The second half of The Boy and the Heron sustains the ethereal unease of the ghost train sequence from Spirited Away for the better part of an entire hour.” – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

“In creating this alternate world, Miyazaki has allowed his creative juices to flow in a way that reminds of the spa in Spirited Away.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

“Not unlike Spirited Away, The Boy And The Heron is the saga of an impressionable child on a magical odyssey, and Miyazaki dots Mahito’s journey with one striking locale after another.” – Tim Grierson, Screen International

Image from The Boy and the Heron (2023)

(Photo by GKIDS)

How does the movie look?

The Boy and the Heron is among the most beautiful movies ever drawn.” – David Ehrlich, IndieWire

“The opening sequence is legitimately jaw-dropping, literally blurring lines in chaotic and stunning fashion, leading to a fiery burst of color and sound. There are a number of scenes in the film that are positively transportive in their beauty, pushing the boundaries of animation.” – Barry Levitt, The Daily Beast

“Virtually every impeccably framed composition could be a distinct work of art, with painterly backgrounds so gorgeous in their colors and textures they invite the viewer to get lost in them.” – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“The film’s fantasy elements look absolutely beautiful, and they naturally include shots of the classic impossibly delicious-looking Ghibli food.” – Cezary Jan Strusiewicz, Polygon

Isn’t that obvious, though?

“Even by his own standards, The Boy and the Heron looks astonishing, from the lush green landscapes of its principal rural setting to a field of flowers in the breeze to the gentle rays of morning sun peeking over the architectural grandeur of the protagonist’s home.” – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“Ghibli films are well regarded for their gorgeous and distinct, if reliable, animation style. But The Boy and the Heron is the most astonishing-looking film the studio has yet made.” – Barry Levitt, The Daily Beast

“The opening sequence looks unlike anything we’ve seen from Ghibli before, and once again, proves that Miyazaki still has the capacity to surprise his audience with new techniques and ideas.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

Image from The Boy and the Heron (2023)

(Photo by GKIDS)

How is the story?

“You won’t be surprised to learn that not everything in the The Boy and the Heron will be the easiest to follow — it’s as heady an adventure as any that came directly out of the mind of Miyazaki.” – Tomris Laffly, The Wrap

“Some of the film’s more fantastical narrative tangents can at times become perplexing.” – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“Wonderful as this fantasy world can be, it can also be a bit overwhelming, as things just sort of happen because, hey, fantasy rules.” – Ross Bonaime, Collider

“The storytelling can sometimes be cluttered, and the narrative momentum occasionally stalls before a moving third act.” – Tim Grierson, Screen International

“Where The Boy and the Heron may divide audiences is not in its technical execution but in the way the story unfolds.” – Matt Schley, Japan Times

Should we bring the kids?

The Boy and the Heron will likely prove more challenging for children than the majority of the director’s output.” – David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

“Despite its G rating in Japan, Miyazaki’s latest has a markedly more mature tone and provides more unsettling moments than the likes of Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro.” – Emma Steen, Time Out

The Boy and the Heron premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2023. It opens in theaters on December 8, 2023.

Thumbnail image by GKIDS

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