The Deer King is a movie I find hard to discuss. By all accounts, it’s a competent movie with some immaculate direction that tries to tell a grand narrative, but it’s too competent. Virtually all of its elements work, but they’re so unremarkable in their execution that it almost dampens the quality of the work. Again, it works. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of it. It’s just there, existing, and there’s no more boring a compliment to give a movie than “it exists.”
The Deer King
Directors: Masashi Ando, Masayuki Miyaji
Release Date: July 15, 2022 (Theatrical)
It’s been years since the brutal war between the kingdoms of Zol and Aquafa. Zol has subjugated the people of Aquafa as a result of this war, but peace was achieved. One of the warriors who fought for Aquafa to create this peace, Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi/Ray Chase), has been imprisoned by Zol and sent to work in the mines. Due to a horrifying disease that originates from wolf bites making its way across the kingdom, Van is able to escape the mines alongside a little girl named Yuna (Hisui Kimura/Luciana VanDette), but he is infected by the disease. Strangely enough, he doesn’t succumb to it and instead gains magical powers from it, powers that the leaders of Aquafa want to get rid of if they want to regain their independence from Zol. However, all Van wants to do is live a quiet life with Yuna and not get involved in any conflicts. So of course, Aquafa puts a bounty on his head and a group of wolves takes Yuna, spurring Van into action.
There are a lot of pieces on the board in The Deer King and they’re always on the move. The film focuses a lot on establishing the world and the various elements within it, but it overloads the viewers with too much information. A text crawl at the beginning sets the stage and most characters will steamroll through dialogue assuming that you’re already aware of the terms and machinations of the various political factions within. It can be overbearing at times, especially when the film starts loading unique terminology without any proper context.
It leads to a weird problem for The Deer King. At times, I feel like I should be taking notes or at least consulting a wiki to figure out what’s going on. I can appreciate the film wanting to have this fully fleshed-out world, but it feels like we’re starting with chapter 3 or 4 of a story rather than at the beginning. Yes, this is the story of Van and his life after he’s been blessed with these magical powers, but The Deer King has different priorities in where it places its focus. It wants to tell this grand story about a conflict between two kingdoms viewed through the lens of a former soldier, but it never really commits to that direction. It just kind of accidentally stumbles into that perspective after meandering around for nearly half of its runtime.
One area where the film certainly places a lot of its focus is its visuals. It’s interesting that the publicity for The Deer King doesn’t really center on its directors, but rather on the animation staff attached to it. Most of the animation staff have worked on many Ghibli films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, several Satoshi Kon movies, and even modern releases like Fortune Favors Lady Nikoku. There’s definitely a high quality to the animation, with the attention to detail on character designs, the lush forests of this world, and animals inhabiting said woods looking especially beautiful. It’s just a shame that there isn’t really any time to showcase that animation.
Simply put, a lot of the film is understated. Characters are generally calm and collected and we don’t have much of a focus on melodramatic vows of vengeance. It’s grounded. On one hand, this puts a focus on the minutiae of the character’s lives, whether it be a doctor attempting to heal people from the wolf-borne disease to Van attempting to domesticate a deer. The simplicity really does bring home just how at peace this world is, with the action only coming out to symbolize the conflict boiling up to the surface, unleashed by the leaders of Aquafa in a fit of blinding rage. On the other hand, the vast majority of the film is not exactly engaging to watch. In fact, it can be outright dull.
Even in movies that tend to be very grounded or subdued, there still needs to be some kind of a climax that raises the stakes. Of course, there is a climax present in The Deer King, but it doesn’t have any of the impact that I think the creators were going for because so much of the plot up until this point just isn’t exciting. The animistic imagery is very pretty to look at, but it means nothing if it’s not engaging. When there is an army of wolves charging through the countryside, infecting innocent bystanders as they go, it should elicit something, anything, in the viewer. And yet, it doesn’t. I described the climax as exhibiting this palpable rage, but it comes nowhere near the grandiosity I described. It’s just there.
It ultimately makes The Deer King into a dull movie to watch. The world is very interesting and well developed, but that’s all there is to this movie. It’s a nice world that forgot it actually needed to have interesting characters and a reason to show off its lovely visuals. Nothing about the film is particularly remarkable except for its quietude, but that only serves to harm the movie rather than help it. It’s a movie you can zone out and relax to, but you can equally zone out and fall asleep to it. Pretty visuals and a great pedigree can only get you so far.