Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
The Boy and The Beast
Nine-year old Ren was alone in the world. After his single mother passed away, he was going to be sent to live with her relatives, but Ren only wanted his "real dad" to pick him up instead. Realizing that his biological father was never coming back, Ren ran away to live on the streets. He could still count his age on just two hands, but he'd already decided to live the rest of his life alone.
Suddenly, a terrifying beast named Kumatetsu, half-monkey and half-bear, appeared and asked the young boy to become his apprentice. Terrified of being caught and sent back home, Ren followed Kumatetsu into the world of beasts under a new name: Kyuta. At first, Kyuta hates his new life, but over time, he begins to see himself in Kumatetsu. Maybe neither one of them has to be alone after all.
At first glance, The Boy and The Beast carries all the hallmarks of a Mamoru Hosoda film. The warm colors, wiggly lines, soft expressions, and hyperactive motion that define his filmography return with style in his fifth feature film, and the story's subject matter is immediately familiar as well. It's another heartwarming tale about families for families, told from a child's perspective with a remarkable understanding of how children perceive the world, peppered with anthropomorphic animals and just a dash of magical realism. As an exercise in sentimental atmosphere that anime fans can watch with the little ones in their lives, it's not so different from the beloved films that have come before it.
However, as a movie from a director with a pedigree for quality emotional storytelling, The Boy and The Beast is not just disappointing, it's heartbreakingly incompetent. For all the trademarks that Hosoda carried with him from past films, he left one absolutely integral ingredient behind for The Boy and The Beast: Satoko Okudera. From The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to Wolf Children, Okudera has always shared a writing credit with Hosoda, turning his original ideas into compelling and cohesive scripts. Many fans credit her with the overpowering feminine touch that also defines Hosoda's work, but since The Boy and The Beast is a film about fatherhood, Hosoda decided to handle the script single-handedly. The result is a plot, characters, and message so frustratingly amateur that the movie becomes enjoyable solely on that first glance basis. The fluffy aesthetic and child-friendliness keep this movie inoffensive, but they can't make the troubled film underneath any good.
The downgrade in writing quality doesn't reveal itself gently either. The sensitivity and thoughtfulness of Okudera's writing feels absent immediately, replaced with a script much closer in quality to a Yu-Gi-Oh! movie than the Ghibli films Hosoda's work is often compared to. The Boy and The Beast is overwritten like the worst kind of kids' movie, assuming that children need every plot point and emotion explained to their face multiple times and that any drop of subtlety will be too much for them to handle. His very first lines find Kyuta talking to a little mouse-creature in an alleyway: "Did you run away from home? That's what I did. I'm all alone, just like you." It's just a little cheesy, but the movie has not yet begun to cheese. Kumatetsu has two beast friends whose sole purpose in the movie is to restate things the audience can see happening right in front of them, explain how other characters are feeling (when it's already obvious), and soliloquize about the moral of the movie. Sometimes they do all three of these things multiple times in one scene, artificially padding out every interaction and hammering out the film's (painfully simple) ideas until you're convinced that this movie was written for no one over the age of four.
They are also the most complex characters in the movie, which is to say that everyone in The Boy and The Beast has one dimension to them at most. The story's goal is simple from the premise alone (lonely angry boy is raised by lonely angry beast and they bond as family), but its characters are so shallow that they can't even fulfill it. From the movie's opening minutes, Kyuta's behavior leaves the audience asking "What?" What does he hate so much about his mother's family that he would rather starve on the street than live with them? What makes him so angry that he bellows "I hate everybody!" at a crowded city street? What was his relationship with his mother like to make him so bitter? Incongruities pile up higher and higher as the movie snails along through meandering "comedy" scenes where the titular boy and beast scream at each other with no narrative momentum. Kyuta is never given a motivation to learn martial arts, but he goes from saying he'd rather die than be Kumatetsu's apprentice to putting himself through hell every day to learn combat because he's decided that "Kumatetsu is alone just like me" after watching him fight. (He says this out loud to the audience, and it's restated no less than a dozen times by different characters scene after scene, instead of just letting the obvious parallel speak for itself.)
The film's thesis would appear to be that Kyuta just needs a dad to knock some discipline into him, because Kumatetsu begins the story as a gruff and insensitive bear and never really changes. His friends nod and smile and say that Kumatetsu has grown so much, but his relationship with Kyuta is always limited to tiresome insult-slinging and sparring, from Kyuta's childhood all the way to adulthood. The only reason Kumatetsu took on an apprentice was because he must learn to teach before he can become the next Lord of the Beasts, but Kyuta is forced to teach himself by simply copying everything the bear does from punches to yawning to scratching his butt. Kumatetsu remains a stereotypical childish grouch to the end, and all the changes Kyuta goes through are a result of his own effort or pure random chance. But because he didn't physically abandon Kyuta and commits a sacrificial gesture in the movie's final moments, Kumatetsu's supposed to be a compelling character and a good dad. The events leading up to this resolution float by without structure or meaning, so the sappy resolution feels unearned by the end.
If Wolf Children was about motherhood from a child's perspective, The Boy and The Beast is about fatherhood from that angle, but if Hana's angelic idealization in Wolf Children summons just a tiny bit of scrutiny, it's got absolutely nothing on the bizarre fantasy of a father Hosoda creates in Kumatetsu. His slobbish and violence-driven parenting is ultimately praised in contrast with the "unsuccessful" parenting of his rival, Iozan the lion-boar, who is a patient and responsible beast that gives his child boundless affection. But because he hides the truth of the boy's adoption from him, (calling him his biological son when he clearly isn't), all this kindness turns the kid into a cackling supervillain after barely minutes of screentime. It is genuinely difficult to understand what Hosoda was trying to say about fatherhood through this movie, as he blends this poor characterization with tortured metaphors about Japan's increase in white-collar crime and Herman Melville's Moby Dick (that misinterpret the book through a minor character explaining aloud what they think it means). It's not just that Hosoda's idea of a great father-son relationship seems unhealthy, but the movie does such a poor job of clarifying what makes good fathers different from bad fathers that the incredible surplus of words he spends explaining the theme just twist into a confusing, unpleasant mush.
If Hosoda brings one notable thing to his debut as a solo writer, it's a newfound awareness of children's capacity for monstrous anger. Despite making so many movies about children, The Boy and The Beast is Hosoda's first film made after becoming a parent himself, and the new thing he appears to have learned about child behavior is that they can become terrifying little monsters without warning. Unfortunately, this just adds "tone problems" to the laundry list of things tearing this story apart. The movie leaps from protracted scenes of juvenile humor to outright horror sequences that accidentally play out much funnier than the actual comedy. Kyuta's daddy issues manifest as a literal black hole radiating out of his chest. When he threatens his girlfriend with violence (she's a perfect supportive fount of wisdom who falls in love with him instantly), she saves him with a melodramatic hug. He's ready to fight, but not before his girlfriend gives a dreadful "power of heart" speech to his enemy. The Boy and The Beast turns into a different movie several times, but the final shift from an examination of an angry little boy in need of a father figure to Hosoda's weird self-insert fantasy about having an "ideal" father is the ultimate disappointment.
The Boy and The Beast's merits are tragically few apart from its beautiful and charming animation, which is characteristic of Hosoda's past work, albeit with an unfortunate amount of unimpressive CG models tarnishing some scenes. The art design also carries the requisite level of Hosoda flavor, but the world of beasts is mostly bland and unimaginative compared to the gorgeous landscapes of Wolf Children or the quirky splendor of Summer Wars' cyberland. The beasts themselves are also hit-and-miss, with Kumatetsu's Berenstain Bears-by-way-of-Sherlock Hound design coming off as forgettable when compared to more minor characters like Lord Bunny or Master Seal. The movie's English dub is also impeccable. In a movie dominated by emotional shouting and some truly awful dialogue, ADR director Mike McFarland and his cast have done their absolute best to bring character and life to the material. It's so solid overall that it's almost impossible to pick standouts, but Ian Sinclair and Eric Vale carry their comedic and dramatically driven roles (respectively) with laudable passion. (Austin Tindle also delivers some amazing skin-chilling laughter, making me wish even more that his character hadn't been so wasted in the movie.)
You could do a lot worse than The Boy and The Beast for a digital babysitter, but people have come to expect a lot more from Mamoru Hosoda. Summer Wars and Wolf Children are the kinds of movies you can't wait for a kid to get old enough to fully appreciate. The Boy and The Beast is the kind of movie you put on to please a kid with its loudness and color, but promptly leave the room to do something else. Not every film by every beloved artist is going to work for everyone, but this feels like a genuine misstep - and given an artist of Hosoda's caliber and the talent he's shown us so far, the wait to see if his next film evolves beyond this will be a long one.
Overall (dub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Great English dub, many sequences of impressive animation and direction, several cute beast-people, most notably the bunny lord
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