The Forest for the Trees – The Deer King

If you’ve ever read this blog for more than a day, then you know how much I love animation as an artform and as a storytelling device. What you may not know is that my favorite animated film of all time is Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. I can objectively state that there are more artistic or technically innovative movies out there, but the first time I saw Mononoke was the moment that I fully realized how limitless the possibilities were for the genre. I’ve always loved cartoons, be they for children, adults, or anyone in between. But it wasn’t until I saw that particular film that I was finally able to grasp what could be done with a vivid enough imagination.

So you KNOW I was excited when The Deer King was announced. Co-directed by Masashi Ando (who worked on Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Your Name) and Masayuki Miyaji (also worked on Spirited Away among others), two animators who cut their teeth at Studio Ghibli, the film premiered in competition at last year’s Annecy Film Festival, where it drew strong comparisons to the Miyazaki classic. After several COVID-induced delays, it was finally commercially released in Japan back in February, and was given a limited theatrical release stateside this month.

Set in feudal Japan (albeit one with dirigibles), the story chiefly concerns a relationship between an escaped slave and his by necessity adoptive daughter. Had this been a streaming release, I would have included it in the “DownStream” column I put out earlier this week. And when the film focuses as squarely as possible on that crucial bond, it’s among the year’s best. Unfortunately, things get a bit too overloaded, plot-wise at least, to entirely work. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it if you’re interested, just a fair warning that the 110-minute runtime could easily stand to lose at least 20 due to superfluous tangents.

A slew of onscreen text sets the thematic stage. Two kingdoms, Zol and Aquafa, were once at war. Zol was the dominant force, but could never capture one crucial part of Aquafa’s territory, due to their last defense, magical wolves whose bite was fatal to anyone from Zol. As such, the two eventually set aside their differences and formed an alliance.

It is in this setting where we find Van (voiced by Shinichi Tsutsumi in Japanese and Ray Chase in the English dub), a hulking man enslaved in a Zol salt mine. He is a former warrior who once fought for Aquafa, but was imprisoned after his mission failed. One night, as the Emperor of Zol prepares to make his annual visit around the kingdom, the Black Wolves strike once more, killing everyone at the mine except for Van and a young orphan girl called Yuna (Hisui Kimura/Luciana VanDette). Both are bitten, but because they are of Aquafa, they not only survive, but gain supernatural strength and power.

Escaping together, Van finds himself able to commune with the Dog King, a mystical being who controls the wolves, and who wishes for Van to become his successor to protect Aquafa. Yuna, on the other hand, having no memory of her real family (in the mine she was sold to one of the workers to raise), imprints on Van and considers him her “Dada,” which softens the stoic Van, who lost his wife and son in the war with Zol. Meanwhile, a Zolian priest-doctor named Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi in Japanese, Griffin Puatu in English) believes there may be a scientific reason as to why Aquafans are immune, and wishes to use Van’s blood to develop a cure for the deadly illness caused by the Black Wolves’ bite. He seeks Van out with the help of Sae (Anne Watanabe/Erica Schroeder), an expert tracker.

All of this is well and good on its own. There’s a lovely rapport formed between Van and Yuna, and the feeling of joy in watching her grow into a caring human being after the trauma she’s already faced is palpable, both for Van and for us in the audience. Hohsalle’s journey is noble, and a sign of the evolution from faith to science. Sae is an honorable character with the capacity for emotional attachment. These are all fine archetypes.

Combine all that with some absolutely stunning visuals, and you’ve got a recipe for success. The landscapes are simply gorgeous. The Emperor’s airships pop up over the trees (while still tethered to the ground) like giant eyes keeping an ever-present (and delightfully ominous since we never actually see him) watch over the kingdom, creeping ever closer to the Aquafa home base. The attacks from the wolves are preceded by a wonderfully imaginative gloppy grey mist that feels straight out of Mononoke itself. As part of their attempt at a quiet life, Van and Yuna join a communal farm that raises piuika, large deer that can be ridden like horses, and which Van himself once commanded in battle (hence the title), and they’re just beautifully designed. There’s plenty in here to tell a perfect story.

Sadly, the proceedings get bogged down by everything on the periphery. For example, there’s WAY too much time devoted to a subplot about the King of Aquafa and his trusted vizier, who plot to use the wolves to reassert their independence. It adds nothing to the plot, the advisor looks like a cheap knockoff of Jigo from Mononoke, and the storyline never truly resolves itself. All we get out of it are a couple of decent scenes of the two playing chess, and literally everything they discuss was covered in the opening text crawl, rendering their plot utility completely redundant. Similarly, while Hohsalle is a great character, he’s accompanied by a lumbering brute of a bodyguard who’s supposed to be there for comic relief, but tonally the character doesn’t mesh with the rest of the cast. And then of course there’s the ending, which does make a modicum of sense, but ultimately it betrays the main plot in order to satisfy one of the many minor side bits, leaving us with an unsatisfying conclusion.

Part of this may simply be a difference between Japanese storytelling styles versus the West. Even the best films, like Spirited Away, have tangential beats that don’t truly inform the resolution of the plot, but rather give us insight into the characters. But here I don’t think that’s the case. All the stuff about Zol and Aquafa means nothing to the viewer, because these are made up kingdoms and made up governments that exist solely to generate tension. But since the central conflict therein is already rendered moot by the opening text, we really don’t need any sort of palace intrigue going forward. The stage is set, and there’s no real indication that any balance of power is going to be reset, so it just winds up wasting time that could be better devoted to more development for Van and Yuna (forcing a rush of their resolution) or further exploration of the natural and supernatural elements of this world.

None of this makes the movie bad, per se, but it does detract just enough to make it inessential, which itself is kind of hard to believe coming from two seasoned Ghibli alumni. The Deer King is breathtaking to look at, and when it sticks to the core concerns of Van and Yuna, the film has the potential to join the glorious ranks of its forebears. When it meanders off to check in with characters we know little about and care even less, it gets just a bit too lost in the woods for its own good.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite animated film? Do you prefer certain styles over others? Let me know!

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