What separates man from animal, child from beast? As a young child, Ren finds himself orphaned and fearful of his future, so he escapes to Jutengai, the world of beast men and women. It is here he enters an apprenticeship with Kumatetsu, a bear with a goal of becoming lord over all he sees. Rechristened “Kyuta,” the young boy learns how to be both a fighter and a son to a new father, but how well can a human child fit into a world of beasts? The Boy and the Beast is the latest film from Mamoru Hosoda, coming off a string of internationally-successful animated works, but is this tale of tails a continuation of a win streak, or his first belly flop?
Hosoda has rapidly risen in the ranks to be one of the most immediately-recognizable and iconic directors of modern Japanese animation, quickly rising to the level of modern legends such as Hideaki Anno. In an era where Anno’s taken longer than desired to continue his Neon Genesis Evangelion films and living legend Hayao Miyazaki is slowly retiring from the craft he brought to unparalleled heights, Hosoda’s been a bright beacon for an industry that’s increasingly globalized, especially with the US marketplace. For Funimation, The Boy and The Beast represents a new milestone, being a limited-release theatrical presentation (unlike previous movies, which have been limited to certain theaters as part of special events). American audiences have seen his work in the Digimon movie, alongside various contributions to One Piece, Samurai Champloo, but his productions based on original material have all been especially lauded: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children (the latter two released by Funimation, and the first gaining it’s 10th anniversary re-release from the company). All these original productions immediately display his directing style and prowess. Character designs (many of which involve creating animal/human-hybrids that scholars and Freud could investigate for a multitude of reasons) and action sequences are largely noticeable of his signature, however stilted it is to describe in text. Beyond providing a feast for the eyes, Hosoda finds a way to treat the heart and soul of the viewers with emotionally-gripping adventures. Summer Wars, for example, focuses on how the loss of an elder can affect and be a greater disaster to a family than worldwide imminent doom.
When Ren is a child (Luci Christian), his mother dies of a car accident, and with his father out of the picture, he’s faced with joining his mother’s family: people he neither truly knows nor appreciates. As he runs away from home to downtown Shibuya (the primary human setting, as Shibuya’s sponsorship of the film is noted in the credits), he faces three creatures unknown to him: a bear person, Kumatetsu (John Swasey); a monkey man, Tatara (Ian Sinclair); and the potential darkness within himself. Searching for a potential apprentice to improve his own training, Kumatetsu quickly considers and dismisses the wayward youth, but Ren’s escape from police and desire for a better world helps him chase the beasts and fall through universal cracks, landing in Jutengai, a parallel world where men of fur and tails replace those of skin and hair.
Kumatetsu is in eternal battle to be lord of the animal kingdom against Iozen (Sean Hennigan), a boar and a bore, but a strong and noble opponent. The current lord (Steve Powell) is deciding on what Godhood he shall ascened to, and when he does, it’s up for these two to prove their worth as the next leader. Naturally, this is done in battle, and while everyone wields swords, they’re bound to never unsheathe them. Symbolically but unstated, it’s clear that unsheathing the swords would be the equivalent of unleashing the internal darkness within all of us. Iozen raises two children, the potential bully Jiromaru (Brittney Karbowski as a child, Josh Grelle as an adult) and curiously noble Ichirohiko (Morgan Berry and Austin Tindle), who is clearly a human being wearing a boar hat that nobody questions or comments on except perhaps the viewer.
When Ren proves himself to be a capable, if not competent, trainee for Kumatetsu, he’s rechristened “Kyuta” and lives with the bear, monkey, and their pig/monk ally, Hyakushubo (Alex Organ). From there, days becomes weeks, months, and even years. Kumatetsu, a forever-petulant adult who doesn’t know the particulars of being either a trainer or a parent, slowly both accepts and endears himself to Kyuta, the boy who was filled with anger at a world he’s no longer part of, but now has an outlet to channel it into. Nearly a decade later, Kyuta (Eric Vale) now has another crisis of self; as he’s nearing the end of his teenage years, he’s spent half his life in a world where he was the only one known to be a human being, and all he learned was how to fight. Is he beast or man at this point? Faced with this internal dilemma, he returns to the human world, and the story enters the second phase. Much like life, you’ve got the setup, now it’s up to you to determine and understand what the future holds. Know that the human world includes many questions, such as “how do you learn to read if you’ve been out of school for eight years,” “how do you interact with women (Kaede, voiced by Bryn Apprill, provides a sweet counterbalance to the manly/combative nature of the rest of the cast with a soft, encouraging, educational mindset),” and “what happened to the family you left behind?”
For action fans, there are only three real “fight” scenes of note in The Boy and the Beast, and they’re all entertaining. The first and second feature battle tactics unique to the limitations and extravagances inherent of the characters; Kumatetsu and Iozen have the ability to increase their size and strength, tapping into the more animalistic nature of the characters, and all fights involve unique usages of swords that can’t or won’t be unsheathed. The third invokes some supernatural elements that are a wonder on the big screen with a theatrical budget. All are a good use of Hosoda’s notable style, but are far out and short enough that they give you a taste of what could be. With the movie clocking in around two hours, it’d be hard-pressed to find any place to put them, as the true story of the movie, both the relationship of a surrogate father and his son and what it means to be human or beast, easily fills the rest of the film. There are no clear answers and easy paths for either, and hard decisions are made by all over the course of the film.
Sadly, while the final beats are rewarding for Kyuta and Kumatetsu, they come against an unnecessary and underdeveloped threat. Seeds are sown early in the movie for this aspect and challenge which are promptly ignored for the bulk of the next hour; these could have been left out entirely. The abandoning of this aspect would lead to a trimmer run time, but it would also remove “darkness of man” plot (that’s never truly developed to its fullest potential anyway). The threat lacks no true motivation or reasoning, despite a brusque handwaving of the situation as a flashback, and once the threat is faced, the aftermath is minimal for much of the cast, especially on the reflective aspects of the opposer.
The English dub is solid, reaching into the veteran Funimation crew that know how to handle these roles (and have done equivalents over dozens of franchises). The music is forgettable. It’s not standout amazing nor notably bad, supporting the scenes well, but so unremarkable that you won’t remember any of the individual songs or hum any beats. There are moments where the movie uses quiet to a strong effect (the “countdown” bit in the second battle should leave the theater as quiet as the cast in the film). On a technical level, many of the visuals are amazing, especially when it comes to the main cast. All are immediately recognizable and would pass the “silhouette test.” When it comes to crowds, the usage of CG to populate the worlds becomes a little more obvious, and many of the extras seem to just don’t have the “lives” that the main characters do. The lead cast has scars, style, and unique attire, while the background characters have a handful of body types, swapped animal parts attached to the head, shifted colors, and generic clothing. It’s hard to immediately design the characters that are in fleeting glances, but for a potential world of limitless creatures, origins, backgrounds and more of beast people — especially one that doesn’t have to restrain itself to real-world materials — what we get feels like a sanitary and self-limiting world.
Hosoda continues to be an amazing director, but The Boy and the Beast shows a slight evolution, or even experimentation, of the artist’s craft. Letting the story reduce the action and focusing on the relationships of the cast is superbly done, but leaves viewers wanting more of the individual fighting that’s set him to the forefront. There’s a whole untapped world here, especially given the potential of the Jutengai, a world that doesn’t seem to be nearly explored as much as it could be. However, for a two-hour film, you’re given a quick glance with enjoyable and relateable characters and messages. For the audience that has either wondered what it means to not fit in or even how to connect with a child that isn’t exactly like you, The Boy and the Beast is touching and leaves you warmhearted, like a big man-bear hug.
A digital copy of the film was supplied by Funimation as a screener for the press. Your experiences in a theater may be different than ours. Our press kit came with a scarf, flipbook, hand fan, pen, poster/calendar, and a copy of the soundtrack. None of these items had any effect on the review, and are listed for transparency sake.
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