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It makes sense that “The Deer King,” in theaters today after a successful international run in Japan and parts of Europe, is reminiscent of some of the best work of Studio Ghibli. After all, one of the directors, Masashi Ando, worked in the animation department there on classics like “Princess Mononoke,” and “When Marnie Was There,” while the other director was credited as assistant director on “Spirited Away.” They learned a thing or two about gorgeous visuals that meld fantasy storytelling with images of the natural world. Well, they should have. Because they forgot the magic. Where they fail in “The Deer King” is in the storytelling, almost as if they’re copying a playbook they made at Ghibli, without the same heart behind the undeniably strong technique. “The Deer King” looks great (and has a lovely score) but it’s repetitive, predictable, and downright dull—three things that can almost never be said about the animation house that so clearly inspired it.
“The Deer King” is based on a fantasy novel series by Nahoko Uehashi that was published in 2014—so the elements that feel like parallels to the Covid-19 pandemic are just "good luck." After all, this is a story about a world-ravaging pandemic that kills some while it spares others, and the fighting that erupts as the planet starts to die. How timely.
The film centers two strangers who are thrust together by an impossible event. Opening years after a war allowed the Empire of Zol to take over the Aquafa people and turn them into slaves, the action of “The Deer King” kicks off with an Aquafa man working in a salt mine when they are attacked by wild dogs that carry something called the Black Wolf Fever, a deadly disease. The former soldier turned slave, Van (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi) survives the attack and flees with another survivor, a girl named Yuna (Kimura Hisui). Their very survival makes them coveted escapees because they may hold the key to reversing the course of a Black Wolf Fever outbreak.
This is one of those projects that simply feels like it’s the wrong length. The writers either needed more space to tell this story, one that likely has a richer mythology in the novels, or less runtime in order to tighten up some of the broad melodrama and focus. "The Deer King" is constantly explaining itself and its self-importance, opening with a lengthy scrawl about the political infighting and too rarely taking time to develop its world or the characters in it. There are striking visual flights of fancy, but Ghibli’s strength is in how it can marry its fantastical imagery to its storytelling, and the two fail to cohere into one consistent vision here. Even as I admired some of the more beautiful images in “The Deer King,” I felt further and further detached from a story that sets itself up as something robust only to really be a pretty straightforward hero journey for a fallen soldier and an orphaned girl.
Of course, it’s unfair to compare a new animated Japanese drama to Studio Ghibli, even with the connection of the filmmakers, but anyone who’s seen “Princess Mononoke” will find themselves wondering if the two are related simply because they're so visually and thematically similar. The harsh truth is that “Princess Mononoke” creates a three-dimensional world within minutes while this one fails to break its surface over almost two hours. And while I admired some of this movie's compositions in the final act, I couldn’t begin to tell you what the message is here. Some of this film's politics are, politely, a bit muddled.
I love GKIDS (the studio behind this film’s release) and everything they stand for, and I understand that this kind of Ghibli Lite fantasy film will be enough for some people while we all wait for something better. But they’d be better off if they just watched “Princess Mononoke” again.
Now playing in theaters.
Shinichi Tsutsumi as Van (voice)
Ryoma Takeuchi as Hohsalle (voice)
Anne Watanabe as Sae (voice)
Hisui Kimura as Yuna (voice)
Atsushi Abe as Yotaru (voice)
Yoshito Yasuhara as Tourim (voice)
Toru Sakurai as Makokan (voice)
Shinshu Fuji as Orphan (voice)
Tomomichi Nishimura as Kenoi (voice)
Tesshou Genda as King Akafa (voice)