The Boy and the Heron Review: The Most Retrospective and Profound Film of 2023

Hayao Miyazaki has been a force in the animation world for nearly 50 years. His work and influence are unmatched, with titles such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke in his legendary catalog. Miyazaki’s films have received 4 Best Animated Feature Academy Award nominations, with 2 winning. The Boy and the Heron only adds to Miyazaki’s already powerful filmography.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Miyazaki has utilized hand-drawn animation throughout his entire career, and even in 2023 in the wake of the best computer-generated imagery, he continues to do so. Every shot of this movie is an artistic achievement. From the wind blowing the grass to the sun reflecting on the clouds, this movie was made with such exquisite detail and talent. Even though the entire film is hand-drawn it lacks no fluidity whatsoever.

With The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki has only further convinced me that hand-drawn animation is the best. Seeing this movie in theaters certainly helped the visual experience, but nonetheless, The Boy and the Heron was immersive and breathtaking. Movies like this that fill the viewers with such visual wonder are the movies I long to see, and Miyazaki never disappoints.

Miyazaki brought back the composer he has used in most of his films, Joe Hisaishi, and he certainly did not disappoint. The soundtrack is stripped down in its scope but is still very melodic and moving. The quiet and swelling piano is a recurring motif used appropriately throughout both quiet and epic parts of the film. Accompanied by a stringed arrangement, it is one of the best soundtracks from a Miyazaki movie.

The movie follows a young boy, Mahito, who has recently lost his mother. We find out through an intense and immersive flashback that she died in a hospital fire. Mahito dreams of this event quite often, each time with the flames engulfing him as he cannot reach his mom in time. This image is powerful, and right from the start, the viewer is equally blown away by Miyazaki’s visionary talent as they are emotionally invested in Mahito as a character.

The remainder of the film follows the wonderous journey Mahito takes through an astonishing fantasy world. It is through this journey that Miyazaki shows Mahito growing up and confronting his grief. Mahito interacts with the world he is discovering, and in these interactions, he sees life and death, growth and decay, and many other aspects of the good and bad of life.

Therein lies the power of this film. It is dark yet hopeful, bleak but beautiful, and in all of these varying moments of boundless emotion, I felt exactly what Miyazaki wanted me to feel. I was lost in the fantasy world he envisioned, and I left the theater inspired unlike any movie has ever made me feel.

No other animator could have pulled off The Boy and the Heron this well. Somehow, Miyazaki is able to create a film that works as both a reflection on an aging man’s astonishing career as well as a coming-of-age film exploring innocence and youth. When given the option to live out his life in this fantasy world with the ability to create whatever he wants, Mahito declines. He accepts that perfection is unattainable, and in that acceptance Mahito’s journey is complete. The conversation between Mahito and his great-uncle (voiced by Mark Hamill) is the perfect emblematic end to Mahito’s growth. It’s a powerful moment.

In The Boy and the Heron, Miyazaki takes the viewer on an emotional journey that reaches the depths of my imagination. Analogously, it pursues a depth of detail and layering that can be quite complex and difficult to wrap your head around. Did I entirely understand it? No. But did I feel it? Absolutely, and I think that is the point. Miyazaki knows his career is nearing its end, and he is begging the viewer, just as the granduncle begged Mahito, to create beauty in the world, something Miyazaki has done his entire career. I don’t wish this to be Miyazaki’s last movie, but if it were, he could not have gone out on a better note.

The Boy and the Heron is a masterpiece. It is powerful filmmaking, emotionally engaging, and it took me on a journey unlike any other movie ever has. Miyazaki’s ode to animation, film, youth, and grief is magical, and watching it in the theater is a moment I will cherish for a long time.


Aidan Lytle

Aidan Lytle

Aidan is currently a student at Welch College pursuing a degree in English. His interests include movies (primarily Lord of the Rings and anything Christopher Nolan), oil painting, NEEDTOBREATHE, Future of Forestry, and the Tennessee Titans.

2 thoughts on “The Boy and the Heron Review: The Most Retrospective and Profound Film of 2023

  • April 16, 2024 at 11:16 am

    Spot on! If this is Miyazaki’s last film, I am thankful I was able to see it in the theater. It’s a gorgeous and moving film.

  • April 16, 2024 at 11:50 am

    Good review, Aidan! Thanks for your contribution and for helping us to see and feel the power of a good film, and the talent of a great artist.


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