Toronto Awards Analysis: ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ Fest Opener and Miyazaki Swan Song, Will Be Hard for Academy to Resist

Film

Hayao Miyazaki, the most celebrated figure to emerge from the world of motion picture animation since Walt Disney, received an honorary Oscar in 2015, two years after he announced his retirement following a remarkable career that included three films that received nominations for the best animated feature Oscar, one of which — his 2002 masterpiece Spirited Away — won.

To the delight of his many fans, Miyazaki-san, who is now 82, has un-retired to make, allegedly, one last film, The Boy and the Heron, a surrealistic, semi-autobiographical tale of a boy haunted by the loss of his mother during World War II, as a gift for his grandson, according to reports. And that film’s North American premiere kicked off the 48th Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday evening.

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Reviews of the film, which opened in Japan back on July 14 and has grossed a formidable $53 million there, have been very admiring. THR’s David Rooney, for instance, wrote: “Virtually every impeccably framed composition could be a distinct work of art, with painterly backgrounds so gorgeous in their colors and textures they invite the viewer to get lost in them. Then there’s the exacting attention to foreground detail and movement, all of it stitched into fluid visual storytelling in which even the oddest elements cohere into a harmonious whole… If some of the film’s more fantastical narrative tangents can at times become perplexing, the images wash over you, a constant reminder of the descriptive power of Miyazaki’s visual language.”

Rooney also notes that this Miyazaki film, with its heavy subject matter, will probably play better with adults than with kids — which can only help its prospects with Oscar voters. “The generations who grew up with his animated tales will find it loaded with meaning. There’s tenderness, melancholy and wonder at its core.”

While The Boy and the Heron seems unlikely to pose a serious threat to this season’s longstanding best animated feature Oscar frontrunner, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Sony), it will almost certainly result in a fourth nomination for Miyazaki, who is revered by his peers in the Academy’s animation branch, not least for keeping alive the dying art of 2D hand-drawn animation.

And while the filmmaker did not make the trip to Canada for TIFF, he was still very much top of mind for attendees, as surprise guest — and reigning best animated feature Oscar winner — Guillermo del Toro introduced the screening by noting that Miyazaki “may be the greatest director of animation ever.” Not a bad endorsement as awards season gets underway.

The Boy and the Heron will next screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1 en route to a U.S. theatrical release via GKIDS, with its rollout beginning on Nov. 22 and expanding on Dec. 8. It would make for an interesting double-header with another of this season’s contenders that also deals with grief and a post-death reunion with a parent, All of Us Strangers.

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