The Boy and the Heron review: Hayao Miyazaki brings back the magic of Ghibli

The newest Studio Ghibli film premieres in cinemas on Boxing Day

The Boy and the Heron (Elysian Film Group)
The Boy and the Heron marks Hayao Miyazaki's return to directing after retiring in 2013. (Elysian Film Group)

It didn't take long for Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki to come out of retirement for a fourth time, but it is certainly a good thing that he did because the director has delivered a magical story with The Boy and the Heron.

Set in 1943, the drama centres on 12-year-old Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki and Luca Padovan) who is struggling with grief after his mother was killed during bombings in Tokyo and is withdrawing into himself more as time goes on. His father, on the other hand, is steamrolling ahead, finding love again with his late wife's sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura and Gemma Chan) and moving the family to the countryside where they will be safe from the war, for Mahito it's almost as if everyone has forgotten his mother completely.

The Boy and the Heron (Elysian Film Group)
The film follows 12-year-old Mahito, who enters another world to save his step-mother. (Elysian Film Group)

His mother's family home is not what it seems, though, because soon Mahito is visited by a strange heron (Masaki Suda and Robert Pattinson) who tells him that his step-mother has disappeared into another world and needs saving, offering to be his guide. What follows is a touching story of loss, acceptance and found family infused with a magical realism that harkens back to classic Ghibli films.

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Miyazaki last retired following the release of The Wind Rises, a biopic about engineer Jori Horikoshi that was a grounded historical drama. By comparison The Boy and the Heron is a tale full of fantastical creatures and fantasy worlds, featuring a noble quest that holds a moving message about humanity and war at its heart. It is different, but also not so much if you know Miyazaki's work well.

The Boy and the Heron (Elysian Film Group)
The Boy and the Heron features wonderfully fantastical creatures, including a comically power-hungry bird colony. (Elysian Film Group)

Mahito's journey is one that many will be able to resonate with, and the story is said to be semi-autobiographical as Miyazaki took inspiration from his own childhood to inform the character. This would explain why this movie feels so personal, but the filmmaker also knows how to deliver pure cinematic magic and The Boy and the Heron is just that.

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The film is breathtaking thanks to its stunning animation, which the studio is renowned for, as well as the delightful creatures it features in its other world —including a comically power-hungry bird colony. But what is most profound is the way in which the film is able to subtly nod to Studio Ghibli's history.

The Boy and the Heron (Elysian Film Group)
What is most profound about The Boy and the Heron is the way in which the film is able to subtly nod to Studio Ghibli's history. (Elysian Film Group)

A scene with a swooping arrow would feel at home in Princess Mononoke, several creatures feel as if they have come straight from Ponyo or My Neighbour Totoro, and the film's war-torn, artistically drawn opening scene brings to mind two works by the late Isao Takahata, with whom Miyazaki founded Ghibli: The Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The Boy and the Heron may mark a new chapter for Miyazaki but it is a stunning celebration of what came before as well.

As it reaches its climax the narrative starts to enter into strange and confusing territory, jumping around in a way that might make it difficult for some viewers to make sense of it. The beauty of Ghibli, though, is that it doesn't always have to make sense to move you.

The Boy and the Heron (Elysian Film Group)
The Boy and the Heron is a welcome return for Hayao Miyazaki to the animation industry. (Elysian Film Group)

The Boy and the Heron is a film that needs time to settle in one's mind, in a similar way to how long Mahito needs before he can understand the events around him.

But what is certain is that the film is a welcome return for Miyazaki, whose talent for delivering stunning visuals and telling stories in a thought-provoking way are second to none. And now the director has put to bed questions of retirement once more, we can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

  • 🎞️ When is The Boy and the Heron out in cinemas: Tuesday, 26 December

  • ⭐️ Our rating: 5/5

  • 🎭 Who's in it? Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Kô Shibasaki, Takuya Kimura in the Japanese edition, Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson, Karen Fukuhara, Mark Hamill and Christian Bale in the English version.

  • 👍 What we liked: The magical realism of the story, the nods to Ghibli's past films, and the touching story make this a great return to form.

  • 👎 What we didn't: The narrative can be hard to follow towards the end.

  • 📖 What's it about? 12-year-old Mahito Maki is struggling with his grief after losing his mother during the war, and when his father remarries his late wife's sister they move to the countryside Mahito meets a strange heron who urges him to follow it into a different world where he can save his step-mother.

Watch the trailer for The Boy and the Heron: