In this version, Bagheera wields a sword and Mowgli aims for university.
Mamoru Hosada is basically to Japanese animation what Disney is to Western animation: one of the better players in the field, but far from the best the medium has to offer. Just like Disney has never been able to produce a movie that my pre-college self would have loved but my post-college self just finds alright, I’m not too keen on rewatching any of Hosada’s films these days whether or not I think they’re good. Whilst the character animation being distractingly un-detailed compared to the rest of the animation is a bit of a sticking point in his films, my main problem with him are how he spreads the subject matter of his stories too thin to leave more than a middling impact. Still, his stuff is better than…well let’s face it…any anime airing right now, so I could not go to see his film fast enough when it came out in theatres just to ignore the sixteen cartoons I’m going to finish in a few weeks for a moment. And The Boy and the Beast is a fine filme, although whether you’d want to buy the blu-ray or not after seeing it really depends on how much you can accept that whole “something for everyone” mentality. Which sounds good in theory, but in practice it often means spreading yourself out so thin that no element truly shines.
The movie starts off like a more mainstream version of Spirited Away, in that it focuses on a young boy named Ren running away from his legal guardians after his parents became unable to take care of him on account of his father being somewhere unknown and his mother being straight-up dead. He encounters a beast deity named Kumatetsu in the streets and ends up following him into a strange world of colorful beast people, most of who are wary of humans due to the inherent darkness within them that can destroy animals in a way that PETA would declare too powerful to oppose. Ren ends up being apprenticed by Kumatetsu in the art of swordplay and after some initial struggles due to his master being a complete idiot, a ten-year time skip turns him into the standard Disney strong man who soon finds another way of life after going back to the human world and meeting a girl who’s as smart as he is strong. What follows is the old classic tale of Ren struggling between staying in the beast world or integrating back into the human world whilst strange things happen in the former that threaten to affect the latter in the process. The only thing missing from this familiar fable are people bursting into song after a major event.
In some ways, Hosada’s approach to this style of storytelling is better than say, Disney’s Tarzan or Ushio & Tora, because he likes to focus more time on making his leads relatable to a general audience, having them go through actual struggles that can’t be solved in song and giving them personal flaws we can identify with. And Ren definitely has that in spades if you ignore the fact that he can beat up three guys at once with only a slight scratch and summon supernatural powers that will allow him to go toe-to-toe with water demons. While the movie can overdo the angst at times, you have to keep in mind that Ren is a stubborn kid who’s never had a real family and isn’t one to just dive into something without questioning the methods, not helped by the fact that his would-be guardians are often idiots. Kumatetsu is pretty much every stupid shonen lead ever, which doesn’t exactly translate to good teaching or fighting, so whilst this leads to a volatile relationship with his human apprentice, it also gives him a character arc where he has to grow more mature in order to become a God. In that sense, The Boy and the Beast can be considered the criticism against the shonen action genre that it desperately needed.
As a tradeoff though, Hosada’s stories tend to be overcomplicated despite the fact that the overall narrative is really simple. The most egregious is the final villain of the film, who I won’t spoil, but I’ll ask the following questions. Why exactly is there a physical villain that Ren has to face at the end of this film considering the majority of the conflict up to that point has been mostly psychological? And why did that character do such a 180 in terms of personality when he grew up in order to fulfill that role in the first place? And why was he and his backstory never important until the final act? It feels like it was crowbarred into the narrative at the last minute.
But that’s not the only problem that bogs down what could have been a great film into something that’s just decent at best. The Boy and the Beast is paced weirdly, like someone cut and paste scenes from a would-be series and just made a movie out of it. The middle arc where Ren goes back to the human world for the first time in ten years, meets his lady friend, and yearns to get an education whilst struggling with the life of fighting he once lived is executed decently for the most part, but the arc when he’s a kid moves really slowly on account of it just consisting of him struggling to get along with Kumatetsu and the other inhabitants for what felt like an hour (I think it was only forty or so minutes though), and the final arc where all the plot points the movie had built up over its run come together feels rushed – largely due to the last minute villain, but also because Kumatetsu is absent for a large chunk of the middle section and thus when the film has to resolve his story, it comes off a little Deus Ex even with all the foreshadowing during the movie’s slow start.
Oh, and as you probably expected from this sort of “human entering beast world” premise, a large chunk of the story is devoted to how much animals don’t like humans because of everything the vegetarians call us out for. This leads to Ren suffering from species-ism, if you can call it that, and one of the ultimate takeaways of the film being about how man and animal can get along just fine. It doesn’t have a “must” attached and the ending ends up being similar to Spirited Away in a good sense in order to give it some life, but that message wasn’t really interesting when Tarzan did it years ago, and it’s not dealt with uniquely enough here to be anymore than tolerable. Still, it was kinda cool to see Ren earn respect from those who used to torment him. I’m sort of a sucker for that trope.
But overall, I’d say the hits and misses balance themselves out enough to be worth at least one watch. The emotions are decent, the action is good, and if you don’t mind how jarringly out of place Hosada’s character animation is with his background stuff, you can do far worse than The Boy and the Beast in terms of anime, film, or otherwise. I’d even go so far as to say it’s my favorite anime of the season, even if the bar isn’t really that high now that ERASED kinda shot itself in the foot during its closing act. But Hosada really needs to find a better balance between how to tell a story and how to cater to the mainstream audience if he’s going to continue focusing on making movies for the latter in the future. I don’t mind the fact that he’s basically the Disney of the anime world, but that really doesn’t excuse the fact that he needs a better editor. Preferably one armed with Kill la Kill scissor-blades.