Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Boy and The Beast [US]
Ren's mother has just died, leaving him alone in the world. He doesn't want to go live with his distant relatives, and his father left long ago, so Ren does the only thing he can do - he runs. Out in the streets of the city, Ren stumbles into the giant beast-man Kumatetsu. Ren follows Kumatetsu through a twisting mass of alleys and finds himself in a new world, one where beasts rule the land. There, he will find himself taken under Kumatetsu's wing as apprentice, as Kumatetsu seeks to become strong enough to succeed his lord as ruler of this place. The two will learn strength from each other, growing together in a world of mystery and wonder.
Mamoru Hosoda has a thing or two to say about families. Big families, like the one headlined in Summer Wars, which essentially posited “what if we made this film's protagonist an entire, multi-generational extended family.” Small families, like in Wolf Children, where a single mother's resolute strength is the backstone of the story. And found families, families of people we might not even recognize as family until we look back and see they've made us who we are.
The Boy and the Beast is about just such a family, and more specifically about one central relationship. The two leads are Ren, a human boy turned runaway after his mother's sudden death, and Kumatetsu, a giant bear-beast who runs into him in an alley and takes him on as apprentice (renaming him Kyuuta in the process). Kumatetsu has reason for seeking an apprentice; the lord of his city is planning to retire and reincarnate as a god, and Kumatetsu is aiming to take his place. Unfortunately, Kumatetsu is short-tempered, lazy, and slovenly, and in order to claim the lordship, he'll have to defeat the much more conventionally qualified Iouzan. And so Kumatetsu takes his lord's advice to seek a student, snapping up Kyuuta as an apprentice in spite of the vague danger of the “darkness in the human heart.”
As in all of Hosoda's originals, the central characters and their relationships are undoubtedly the point of Boy and the Beast. Though they cross paths out of the blue, the bond between Kyuuta and Kumatetsu is illustrated clearly and evocatively through scenes of bickering, teaching, and mutual learning. The two are initially united by the way they make stubbornness into their strength, and their relationship is a series of constant arguments mingled with occasional moments of pride or tenderness. While Kyuuta learns how to be strong from his master, Kumatetsu learns far more - his entire personality is molded by the responsibility and triumph of being Kyuuta's caretaker, slowly sculpting him into a man fit to be a father.
Other characters contribute to Kyuuta and Kumatetsu's journeys in their own ways. There's Hyakushuubou and Tataru, the monk and monkey who essentially become Kyuuta's second and third dads. Jiroumaru, Iouzan's younger son, whose initial antagonism towards Kyuuta soon gives way to a sturdy friendship. And Ichirouhiko, Iouzan's eldest, a boy constantly plagued by insecurity and anger.
The contrast between Ichirouhiko and Kyuuta illustrates one of the core themes of Boy and the Beast. It's clear early on that Ichirouhiko is also a human, but his upbringing never gives him the chance to come to terms with what that means. When the two clash, they clash as a representation of how much your home and family contribute to your ultimate identity. Kyuuta is saved by the love of the people who raised and accepted him; Ichirouhiko is nearly drowned in the weight of his own demons.
That conflict ultimately comes together in some resounding dramatic peaks, but the path there is a bumpy one. The Boy and the Beast is nearly unassailable when it comes to its core relationships, but the actual narrative wanders, proceeding through disjointed episodes that feel even less connected than those of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Kyuuta's first journey back to the human world is an abrupt shift into what feels like an entirely different story, where he meets a girl and finds new dreams unrelated to his prior adventures. Kumatetsu's battle for the lordship never makes much sense beyond its illustration of his emotional journey - after all, in spite of all he learns from Kyuuta, he ends the film about as poor of a lordship candidate as he started. And Kaede, the girl who Kyuuta befriends, only ever feels like an accessory to his journey, just sort of standing there through a lot of important scenes.
And yet, in spite of those issues, there are a great many profoundly effective moments in this film. As I mentioned before, the relationship between Kyuuta and Kumatetsu is phenomenal, a bond that grows across endearing scenes of Kyuuta first resenting, then mimicking, then sparring with his guardian on equal terms. The fact that children are in many ways a reflection of their parents is illustrated in ways both overt and subtle, from Jiroumaru acting like he's an extension of his father's strength to Kyuuta regularly reflecting the philosophies of all three of his adopted fathers. There's a great moment near the middle where Kyuuta finds himself caught between Kumatetsu and his biological father, where all three of their perspectives seem incompatible and yet utterly sympathetic. And the film is garnished with many moments that justify themselves purely through their own sense of wonder, like Kumatetsu and Kyuuta's field trip to visit the various sages of the beast world.
It certainly helps that Boy and the Beast is consistently gorgeous. The film has appealing, expressive character designs, a warm color palette, and a wide array of beautiful backgrounds. Though occasional crowd scenes stretch the limits of the film's CG, the beast city of Shibuten nonetheless feels like a living place. Hosoda's preference for long, steady shots also keeps things grounded; the camera often holds on a single character before panning sideways to offer dramatic context, a trick that emphasizes the illusion of solidity in his world. The animation is excellent throughout, adept both at bringing domestic squabbles to life and illustrating the impactful collisions of two giant beasts in combat. And the finale is one long setpiece that mixes traditional animation and well-used CG to create a massively larger-than-life visual spectacle.
The music is also excellent throughout. The film employs diverse elements of a full orchestra to consistently set a variety of distinct tones. When Kumatetsu and Iouzan spar early on, the soundtrack's horns and steady percussion simultaneously evoke the martial rush of the battle and the steady bustle of their marketplace venue. As Kumatetsu and Kyuuta train through a growth montage, their journey is lifted by joyous flutes and piano. The musical choices feel consistently right and energetic without ever getting repetitive; even the difference in Kumatetsu and Kyuuta's fighting styles is represented in song, with Kumatetsu generally being accompanied by brash horns, while Kyuuta favors string and wind instruments.
Funimation's dub is a generally solid set of performances. There was some occasional stiffness in Bryn Apprill's Kaede, and at times it felt like John Swasey was having to stretch to maintain Kumatetsu's eternal gruffness, but it's overall a solid track whose appeal will likely come down to general sub/dub preference. Their collection unfortunately doesn't feature any other meaningful extras - just a couple of trailers, which feel like a serious step down from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time's wealth of commentary tracks.
Overall, The Boy and the Beast is a messy film that I nonetheless find easy to recommend. It's likely another serious script revision would have done the film a world of good - this is Hosoda's first time as principal screenwriter, and it shows. Structural issues like Kaede's awkward place in the narrative and the regular abrupt shifts in focus keep the film from maintaining its momentum throughout, and some of the major character beats would land with more impact if their significance was seeded better. But in spite of all that, the central relationships are as clear and rewarding here as they are in any of Hosoda's films, and the film offers a wide variety of individually great scenes and moments. It's an imperfect but heartfelt meditation on the relationship between children and the people who raise them. That's still a lovely thing to be.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : A
+ The central character relationships are excellent, the film builds to a variety of rewarding peaks, and the aesthetics are great across the board
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