★★★½

The Boy and the Heron is a semi-autobiographical story, written and directed by Miyazaki Hayao. When writing the screenplay, he drew on events from his own life, including living in a city which had been bombed during WWII, evacuating to an unfamiliar town and feeling like an outcast, and being separated from his mother while she was in the hospital.
The Japanese cast is full of wonderful actors known for their roles in front of the camera and behind the mic: Santoki Soma (The Days), Suda Masaki (Kamen Rider W), Kimura Takuya (Love and Honor), Aimyon (Crayon Shin-chan: Honeymoon Hurricane – The Lost Hiroshi), Kimura Yoshino (Confessions), Shibaski Ko (Battle Royale), Hino Shohei (Gozu), and Kunimura Jun (Kill Bill: Vol 1). The English cast is also filled with amazing A-list actors: Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Karen Fukuhara (Suicide Squad), Mark Hamil (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), Mamoudou Athie (Elemental), and Luca Padovan (No Hard Feelings).
In The Boy and the Heron, a young boy named Mahito (Santoki, Padovan) is torn and heartbroken after he loses his mother in a horrible fire. When his father finds a new bride, and the family is moved out of Tokyo and into the countryside, Mahito finds a strange world of converging universes inhabited by the dead, the living, and bizarre creatures with questionable motives. He must navigate through this strange place in order to save the ones he loves and find peace.
The film is another highly imaginative and fluid piece of art from Studio Ghibli. The animation style is both comforting and unsettling. The design of the odd and curious creatures feels otherworldly as their body parts morph and move in ways we are not used to seeing.
All of the elements that Ghibli fans expect are there: beautiful settings, a heartbreaking story, a young main character at a crossroads in his or her life, quirky side characters, and a transformative villain. There is a considerable focus on food, which is another trait of the production company’s films. Also added are the staple adorable, anthropomorphized, inanimate objects that bounce up and down on the screen, reminding us that gravity and physics exist only for those sitting in theater seats.
This isn’t just another cut-and-paste plot and movie, however. There are a few ways this varies from the studio’s other offerings. The main character is more stoic in comparison to the plucky main characters which normally lead Ghibli films. The opening scene with the hospital fire is unique for the studio as well because of the animation style (even from the rest of the movie). This might feel jarring to fans used to the calming and surreal art they have come to expect.
The story’s pacing moves slower than other movies. While the animation is gorgeous and engrossing, the plot hesitates a little too long in moments. There are also a couple of scenes which aren’t explained. They are essential to moving the plot forward but feel out of place in the sequence of events or involved actions which are out of character for the personalities in the film.
The Boy and the Heron is a wonderful film which fans will admire; however, filmgoers new to the studio’s productions may want to choose another film as their first foray into the world of Ghibli.