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Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Boy and the Beast

The Boy and the Beast.

So, I actually had no idea this film existed until I started searching for things to review for today. I stumbled upon it as I was searching, and the animation style - which has a very Miyazaki-ish touch to it, which is certainly a comparison that has been made with this director's films before - drew me in.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda, the director of Summer Wars and the first two Digimon films, The Boy and the Beast is a magical realist look at fatherhood and growing up. In Jugentai, the Beast Kingdom, the current lord announces that he will be reincarnating as a god (just as soon as he decides what to be the god of), asking two warriors - noble, dignified Iozen, who has two sons and apprentices; and wild, unreliable Kumatetsu, who has never successfully trained an apprentice for longer than a morning - to compete to become the next lord, and suggesting to Kumatetsu that he find an apprentice of his own.

When nine year old human Ren runs away from his father's family after the death of his mother, he ends up stumbling into Jugentai, and is taken as Kumatetsu's apprentice, despite the laws of Jugentai stating that no human may enter it, as they have darkness in their souls. Under the guidance of Hyakushubo, a pig that wishes to be a monk, and Tatara, a cynical chimpanzee, both Ren and Kumatetsu begin to learn from each other. But when Ren is seventeen, an encounter with a girl, Kaede, in the human world, and an unexpected reunion with his father, leaves him questioning his place in the world - and things only get worse when Iozen's son, Ichirohiko, is revealed to be another human, one who has been being slowly consumed by his own darkness.

Most of the main cast.

- Damn, that's the longest plot summary I've done for a while. But it's warranted, I think, because while the plot is never complicated (in fact, it has a certain refreshing simplicity to it when you're actually watching), it is quite involved, with a few moving parts. You have Kumatetsu's feud with Iozen, Ren and Ichirohiko struggling with their darkness, Ren training under Kumatetsu and their blossoming father-son relationship, and Ren finding that after eight years in Jugentai, he no longer truly fits into the human world. There's a lot of different things being juggled for a one-hour-forty-five minute film, but it never feels overwhelming, or difficult to keep track of, or overly complicated.

As mentioned before, the animation is kind of brilliant. It's sharp, colourful, distinctive, fluid - it copes equally well with slow, quiet scenes, and with quick-paced action scenes. Jugentai and the human world both have their own distinct colour palettes (with Jugentai in warm hues and the human world in cooler, lighter shades), and the characters are all distinct and massively expressive. The animation swings between heavily stylised in places and hyper-realistic for different elements (backgrounds in the human world sections are often the latter) without ever seeming jarring.

Kumatetsu and Young Ren.

It excels in more or less every other technical aspect, as well: The voice-acting (I watched the English dub, but I'm sure the original Japanese voice acting is very good as well) is good across the board, with John Swasey (as Kumatetsu), Alex Organ (as Hyakushubo), Ian Sinclair (as Tatara), and both Luci Christian and Eric Vale (as Ren) all putting in their absolute best performances. A special shout out goes to Organ and Sinclair, who pull double duty as the film's narrators as well, and have the difficult task of catching the viewers' attention during the mostly-narration opening sequence.

The plot, meanwhile, is fun, even if it does pan out more or less exactly how expected, only really varying from formula near the end. You can see most of the plot turns and twists from a mile off: Of course Ren is the only one to cheer for Kumatetsu during an impromptu fight against Iozen, of course this sets them off on a difficult but productive student-teacher journey, of course Kumatetsu ends up learning from Ren just as much as he learns from Kumatetsu, of course there's a clash between Ren's old life and his new one, of course they argue, of course Ren returns in the nick of time. 

The start of the big final battle, and a nice callback to the Iozen vs Kumatetsu fights.

It's all very expected, very by-the-book, and it's only after that point, in the last twenty minutes of the film when the story takes a much darker turn, that it begins to defy expectations somewhat.

But that doesn't mean it's not characterful, and the fact that the plot is so expected and by-the-book is counterbalanced by the fact that these are characters who it's very easy to care about. The film builds its emotional stakes well, and that makes the formulaic first four acts very easy to enjoy. It also means that when you hit the fifth act, where things start getting dark and tense, and the story starts to deviate from the established formula, it's all the more tense for it.

College application shenanigans.

At the time of writing, this film is a shoo-in for best film of the year come the next Fission Mailure Awards, and it's certainly the film I have most enjoyed watching this year so far. It's one of those films which I'd be perfectly happy watching again, even knowing how it turns out, so it gets my strongest recommendation.

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