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The Boy and the Heron: a review and some thoughts

Updated: Mar 1

Art by Owen Taylor

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, The Boy and the Heron is a really good movie. There, I’ve fulfilled my contractual obligation. I’ve talked about all the Studio Ghibli movies. Should you watch it though? Yeah, probably. 

At first glance, there's not a whole lot here that director Hayao Miyazaki hasn't done before. It has all the Studio Ghibli staples that we've come to know and love: beautiful landscapes and animation, an elaborate fantastical world, and characters that manage to be charming, creepy, and cute all at the same time.

The world is a bit less defined than in most of his previous works, as characters move between vast oceans and ancient towers and a room with a stack of blocks that represents the very fabric of the universe or something like that. What starts as a fairly calm slice-of-life based on Miyazaki’s childhood unfolds into a grand adventure in a magical world and by the end of it all, you feel like you’ve been on a year-long journey to the very edges of time and reality. There’s definitely a lot to unpack; it’s an ambitious film that succeeds in doing pretty much everything it sets out to. It’s the Miyazaki movie to end all Miyazaki movies, although the jury still seems to be out on whether it truly will be his last. 

All this to say, if you've liked the rest of Miyazaki's work, The Boy and The Heron will not disappoint. It’s currently showing in theaters all around the country.

If you have seen the film, read on for some of my more specific thoughts, because I have some and feel like writing them down. It’s definitely the type of movie that you have to sit with for a while (and maybe rewatch) before you can really grasp everything it has to offer, so who knows how much of this I’ll agree with in a few weeks’ time. 

I, intentionally, knew absolutely nothing going in, so I had no clue that what started as a slice-of-life with some elements of magical realism would become a large-scale fantastical adventure (although, knowing Miyazaki, I really should have). While this shattering of my expectations left me a bit sour initially (The Cat Returns had a similar effect), once I accepted what the second half of the movie would be, I had no problem becoming invested in it. That being said, by the end, I found it a little hard to figure out what the stakes were, what the parakeet king’s motivations were, and how Himi became Mahito’s mom or whatever actually happened. 

Looking back on it, though, I only appreciate the somewhat distinct halves more and more. Again, it seems to be combining the best of everything Miyazaki has done, culminating in a truly epic film that packs a way stronger mental and emotional punch than its 2-hour runtime should allow for. It seems way longer than it is, not because it drags on but because it manages to be so well-paced and not waste a single moment. I totally would have taken a movie that stayed within the initial setup and remained a somewhat low-stakes slice-of-life film, but that’s what Arrietty is for. I’ll also take The Boy and the Heron. Actually, I’ll take anything that Hayao Miyazaki makes. 

I completely adored the titular heron. His build-up in the beginning as he became weirder and more menacing was easily my favorite part of the film. Whoever came up with the idea of a heron with teeth is my soulmate, and I might be moving to Japan to go find them. At first, I was a bit sad to see what started as a menacing and mysterious character become a goofy-looking dude in a bird costume for the rest of the movie, but I guess he was pretty entertaining so now I’m fine with it. 

It would feel weird not to say that the animation is beautiful, as always, but it also feels weird to say it because it’s so obvious (actually, after Earwig and the Witch, maybe not). Similarly, the score was great as well. I enjoyed the more minimalist approach and piano-forward instrumentation, and it made me want to rewatch some of the other films again and pay more attention to the music.

Rapid fire round: I really liked it when they caught that huge fish and gutted it, the old ladies at Natusko’s house were very entertaining, and Mahito’s great-granduncle has the hair that Dragon Ball characters wish they had. Also, what was up with the parakeets defecating on everyone they could? I swear it happened multiple times, and I don’t think it was supposed to be played for laughs, and why do the characters at the end just accept it and act as if they weren’t covered in literal feces? Maybe losing your son and new partner to a mysterious tower encasing a magical meteorite gives you more important things to think about. Also, whenever someone meets a younger version of their parents (or an alternate-universe pyrokinetic version of them) it always weirds me out a little. But whatever, at least it didn’t do a full When Marnie was There.

That’s about the extent of my thoughts on this film, if you think it’s bad for some reason fight me in the comments. I’m glad that Earwig and the Witch was just a hiccup in Ghibli’s overall quality, and I’m glad that Hayao Miyazaki is still finding time to make great films at eighty-two. The Boy and the Heron would be a great film to end on, but so would his last ten. There’s a lot more to be said about the film’s themes and symbols and meaning and whatnot, but I leave that to a version of myself that’s had more time to think about it. Until then, I recommend you check it out.

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