Monday 26 December 2016

The Boy And The Beast (2016) - Movie Review

The plot: Street urchin Ren (Luci Christian), after taking a sudden turn in an alleyway, finds himself in the Beast Kingdom. Kumatetsu (John Swasey), a potential successor to the Beast Lord (Steve Powell), decides to reluctantly take Ren on as his apprentice at the Lord’s suggestion. While initially a rocky relationship, Ren and Kumatetsu soon learn a lot from each other but, as Ren grows up and wants to know more about his life back in Tokyo and Kumatetsu has to battle the other successor Iōzen (Sean Hennigan) to decide who will become the new Lord, it seems that they both still have much to learn.

The English cast here is pretty good, if a tad stock. Christian and later Eric Vale do okay with the plucky street rat they’re given, and even manage to work decently with the themes of nature vs. nurture, more so than the script itself at points. Swasey is kind of fun as the renegade older mentor figure, but only in how enjoyably abrasive he is; the more emotional moments, not so much. Hennigan makes a good rival for Kumatetsu without dipping into the usual needlessly hateful territory of this kind of character, the actors playing his sons Ichirōhiko and Jirōmaru work really well too… even if Morgan Berry in no way sounds like a young boy. Yeah, I know that getting female voice actors to portray young boys in anime is a standard practice, but quite frankly, even amongst her peers this doesn’t hold up too well.

You know, even with the vast differences in history and culture that differentiate every country on the planet from each other, it’s quite interesting how ingrained certain story archetypes are in most if not all of them. I bring this up because this is about as 80’s American sports movie as you can get, just with a more fantastical tinge to it. Now, that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; after all, if I've learnt anything from the films I’ve covered this year, it’s that any story can be told well if done right. What makes this falter is how straight the tropes of the genre are played: The rambunctious young student, the gruff loner as his mentor, their respective rivals with a playground bully for the student and a more widely-beloved fighter for the mentor, a competitive battle to redeem one or more of the main characters, intensive training montages that would feel right at home in any of the Karate Kid films; it’s all here and they’re not all that compelling on their own because of how basically they’re presented to us. Hell, the film opens on this grand bit of exposition about how the Beasts can become Gods and just how much is at stake for those lined up for succession… and it’s still painfully generic even with that in mind.

Then we see Ren all grown up (and now played by Eric Vale) and it seems like even the film is getting bored with this basic framework and ends up distracting itself. I say this because, as soon as Ren re-enters the human world, this suddenly turns into a completely different movie. Upon meeting student Kaede (Bryn Apprill) and being tutored by her in how to read and write, this epic fantasy story about gods and swordfights takes a very jarring gear shift that really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film. It does maintain the film’s main theme about learning and Ren coming of age, but the changing and frankly failed attempt to align the human and Beast locales still makes it feel out of place. It probably doesn’t help that the real reason why this subplot exists at all is so that Ren will conveniently be removed from the action for when Kumatetsu has to fight against Iōzen.

And speaking of that fight, not content with having one serious tonal shift in-story already, it then goes for another during the third act. Except here, it ends up playing even further into sports genre and especially Shonen story clichés to somehow make the film feel even more generic than it already does. This isn’t helped by how the sudden dark turn around this time is fuelled by a plot twist that, no joke, is made obvious the instant you look at the character involved. Said twist leads into the film’s last feeble attempt to have a cohesive point to all this, involving the nature of the human (or perhaps just sentient?) heart… but quite frankly, I’ve seen in poignant statements along those lines made in the overblown cut-scenes of Kingdom Hearts. Maybe not making the subtext of the film as glaringly obvious as the filmmakers here do, featuring a literal white whale to fight, would have made this a lot easier to swallow, as contrived as it is.

All in all, considering how much I ended up liking Mamoru Hosoda’s last film Wolf Children, this is infuriating in how generic it is. The acting is okay but held back by bland characterisation, the writing creates what is admittedly an interesting world for the story to take place in but doesn’t end up cashing in on it and sticks to tried-and-true narrative formulas instead, and the animation… okay, the animation is actually pretty good, especially during the fight scenes, but quite frankly, it’s not good enough to make for the fact that it’s a pretty picture without any real weight behind it.

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