Simplicity is the key. From his sparing character designs to his straightforward but often powerful camera movements. Even his stories usually address simple but no less meaningful themes through the ordinary lives of his ordinary characters, save for a minor fantastical twist here and there.
Hosoda has built a career on being a minimalist. Even he’s acknowledged this:
"Back when I was first given the chance to make a film at Toei Studios, it was much more about making these really cool films. Films that were really hard-edged, slick and stylish. Gradually, I changed my mind about that… I don’t think the point of filmmaking is to make slick films like that. I think I’m now looking to make something more orthodox and more simple."
Which is why The Boy and the Beast somewhat confuses me.
Like peas in a pod
Ren’s divorced mother has died in an accident. With his father nowhere to be found, he runs away and stumbles into the fantastic, parallel world of the Beast Kingdom. There he meets Kumatetsu, a crazy strong but crazy irresponsible manbearpig, who eventually raises Ren as his teacher and surrogate father.
While Wolf Children addresses motherhood, The Boy and the Beast deals with fatherhood. That said, the symbiotic nature of the parent-child relationship in Bakemono is a lot more pronounced. From the outset both Ren and Kumatetsu are very obviously flawed characters, if a tad generic. Like father like son I guess, as both are loud, obnoxious and selfish. And yet, there is sufficient reasoning for these traits as to make the pair considerably nuanced and well-developed.
Ren is resentful and lonely. Having lost those he cares most about, he feels trapped and abandoned by the world. It is this same sense of abandonment that drives Ren, making him determined to become strong such that the world can never hurt him again.
Kumatetsu’s irresponsibility stems from the fact that he lacked a parent figure. In order to survive and grow stronger, he needed to be selfish and had no room for philanthropy, nor was he ever shown any. With this in mind, he is still good-natured at heart.
Both father and son have much to learn. And, as expected, they learn from each other. But it is this relationship, watching the two grow together, and their charming interactions and how their similarities and differences meld and clash that is the film’s most gratifying aspect. It is fun and fulfilling, complete with banter and feelsgoodman training montages. Ultimately, as predictable as it is, seeing both father and son transcend their original self-centred goals and personalities, and only with each other’s guidance, is uplifting.
As such, it’s both confusing and a little disappointing when the film drastically deviates from this central relationship. This occurs most notably upon the introduction of the main villain. In short, everything about him is ham-fisted. From his one-dimensional, cartoonish portrayal (cue manic laughter) to the god-awful, tacky Moby Dick motif that is sledgehammered into the viewer’s face, it all feels so bloated and unnecessary. I understand his role as a parallel to Ren such that Ren could conclusively resolve his inner-turmoil and complete his coming-of-age, but again, it feels so awkward.
As opposed to introducing a rushed and caricatured external source of conflict as a means of resolving their inner-conflicts, I felt as if the film would have benefited from a more climatic, internal struggle between Ren and Kumatetsu. Not only would have this allowed the film to keep to its strengths, it would have also provided more screen time to develop the pair’s relationship.
And here’s the problem: by over-complicating the story and introducing these extra, ham-fisted characters and plot points, time that could be spent further developing the main characters and their relationship is wasted. And this shows. Despite its merits, Ren and Kumatetsu’s relationship simply lacks the emotional weight present in Hana’s relationship with her children, which is much more acutely focused on and developed in Wolf Children.
The side characters are forgettable. There’s this subplot introduced in the second act that, although sporting an understandable purpose, doesn’t really make an impression.
My name is Tony and this is Every Frame A...
Hosoda also forgoes his signature simplicity with the film’s visual presentation, specifically with the use of crowds. Come to think of it, I don’t think there have ever been so many people concurrently onscreen in any of his other films. He uses some pretty ugly CG models here, and although I’ve definitely seen worse, they could have been done without (especially as this is a big-budget movie).
Earlier I mentioned how Hosoda is generally both proficient and efficient with his camera movements. For some reason, the movements in The Boy and the Beast are really noticeable and jarring. I’m not sure if Hosoda was doing things more liberally, or if I was just noticing it more because I was distinctly aware of his usual proficiency with the technique. Regardless, it felt like there were a tonne of pans and rotations that didn’t really add anything. Of course, some moments are pretty neat, like when a character was teleporting around and the camera movements helped establish a sense of playful confusion.
Other than that, the art is pretty solid. Colour wise, there is a nice contrast between the dark and artificial Shibuya and the light pastels of the Beast Kingdom. Character designs are neat and simple, like always.
I feel as if Hosoda was too ambitious with The Boy and the Beast. The film loses focus of its core relationship and instead introduces too many forgetful or otherwise plain frustrating elements. If Hosoda had stuck to his guns, further exploring the magic and depth of the very simple yet emotionally stimulating relationship between Ren and Kumatetsu, then I think the film would have been much more rewarding.
While there are still plenty of feel good vibes to be had from The Boy and the Beast, that’s all you can really get from it. It overstepped its bounds when it was all going so well. Ultimately, it lacks significant weight and fails to make much of an impression. I’ll never look at Moby Dick the same way again.