Mamoru Hosoda is behind some of my favorite animated films: Summer Wars, Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and even The Digimon Movie. His direction always brings what’s best about the animation medium to the forefront. You can always expect gorgeous visuals, emotional storytelling, and just a dash of quasi-surreal weirdness. Thankfully, The Boy and the Beast delivers on all fronts.
The Boy and the Beast manages to bottle adolescence’s susceptibility to loneliness to pack a punch while still being just a weird movie where a red bear/monkey guy wants to fight a lion/pig guy to obtain godhood.
The Boy and the Beast
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Release Date: March 4th, 2016 (limited English dub release)
After the death of his mother leaves him in the care of his extended family, Ren (Eric Vale) runs away from home and ends up stranded on the streets of Shibuya. After following a hooded figure he ends up in a secret world of beasts and gods, and after witnessing a fight between two animals squabbling over lordship, he decides to stick around in the world and become a disciple of one of them, Kumatetsu (John Swasey), a red bear man. With both characters in it for their own selfish purposes (Ren, now named Kyuta, doesn’t want to go home and Kumatetsu wants to prove he’s capable of being a leader), the two must find someway to get along and make each other stronger. The Boy and the Beast is ostensibly a film about growing up, yet it’s awesomely a film about coping with one’s own selfishness. Rather than the typical monomyth, or hero’s journey, the stakes always remain personal despite its grandiose setting.
In telling its personal tale, the art of the film is much more subdued than in Hosoda’s previous work. It’s definitely not the first thing you’d expect upon hearing the premise, but its certainly surprising when the fantastical world the film takes place in feels so grounded. Colors are a bit muted (but not washed out), the film doesn’t involve as much action as you’d probably expect from the premise. and despite the mystical nature of the beast world the character designs are more rooted in reality. The beastmen themselves are usually bipedal in nature and have lots of “human like” features with beast accents. Grounding the film like this goes a long way toward making the entire thing more digestible even when it goes off the rails a bit near the end of the film. Above all, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Other than some weird CG use toward the end, it’s full of great stylistic choices.
I’ve spent the past few days just trying to pin down exactly what kind of film The Boy and the Beast is. It’s like Digimon, Spirited Away, Kingdom Hearts, and a couple of My Chemical Romance songs had a baby and read it really obscure poetry every night. Suffice to say, this film isn’t like anything you’ve seen before. I’m not even sure how this package holds together so well given all of its zanier ideas, but it just works. Going back to what I said earlier about its atypical monomyth story, Boy and the Beast is a fairy tale about adolescence. Mainly how adolescence often breeds copious bouts of anxiety (and loneliness as a result) when trying to find one’s identity. “Lordship” basically equates to some kind of adult responsibility which one would use to truly ascend into well adjusted adulthood. I’d discuss a bit more about it here, but it’d spoil a bit of the movie. But I can say that when Kyuta faces that all important adult question of whether to pursue a different way of life or keep chugging along his current path because that’s all he knows, it’ll resonate a bit.
But the film doesn’t exactly explore these themes perfectly. Subtlety isn’t Beast‘s strong suit. While its two leads are well characterized (they’re basically bickering brothers), they do skew the film’s effectiveness. The characters don’t really move the story forward well enough to follow through on a lot of its ideas, so we’re left with a truly confusing and rapidly paced final quarter of the film. The climax just sort of happens without a well established lead in so there’s not as much of a connection to it as intended. Speaking to that, pacing is all over the place. Some plots move too quickly to be developed, and other scenes are dragged out further than they need to be. Rather than feel like we’re soaking in every aspect of the film and its world, sometimes it feel like I was crawling along in the goo snails leave as they move.
Even if The Boy and the Beast has some story and editing issues, it’s definitely one of the more interesting animated films I’ve seen in some time. It’s full of charm and it packs a genuinely emotional wallop. It’s full of such crazy ideas that’s it’s hard not to completely fall in love with this film. It’s one of Hosoda’s best, if not his most peculiar.
The Boy and the Beast is not, uh, the least.