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Heads up: I was able to watch this film via a screener sent to me from GKIDS. I received no other form of monetization other than the screener. Thank you GKIDS for this opportunity.
Something fun to see with Chris Williams’ The Sea Beast was a return to the grand fantasy epics in animation. With the upcoming feature film Strange World from director Don Hall and writer Qui Nguyen, we are entering a phase of having non-comedy-driven experiences. The world of animation is big enough to have every kind of genre. That doesn’t mean I want to stop seeing comedies, but let’s start jazzing up the scene in every way we can. That means we should be supportive of films that come out and do offer something different. For example, let’s take a look at the newest GKIDS-distributed feature from Japan, The Deer King.
Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, written by Taku Kishimoto, and produced by Production I.G., the story follows a man named Van, dubbed by Ray Chase. He was a captured slave who worked in the salt mines of a nation that has taken rule of a neighboring country. This is, of course, all while a horrific plague is brought upon by a mass of wolves that infect one nation’s people, but not the others. Van encounters a young girl named Yuna, dubbed by Luciana VanDette. He goes on a journey with her escaping the mines to find a better life and to learn what exactly is going on. This is, of course, all happening while a scientist is traversing the land to find a cure for the plague named Hohsalle, dubbed by Griffin Puatu. Will Van be able to start life over again with his newfound family situation? Can Hohsalle find a cure for this plague that has cursed an entire nation? How will these characters’ stories be connected?
Let’s get this out of the way first. Everyone and their grandma has been comparing this film to the Studio Ghibli classic, Princess Mononoke. To be honest though? It’s only similar if you haven’t seen the film yet. Yes, there are male lead characters that ride on a deer. That’s about the only way they are the same. Comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges. Both might be fruit, but you aren’t going to call an apple a copy or rip-off of an orange. Whereas Princess Mononoke is the complicated and philosophical battle of humans versus nature, The Deer King is more about humans battling and dealing with human nature. The big bad of the film is the human drive for war and bloodshed. What’s so fascinating about this film is how it has come out during the pandemic period of history, because the director did take note of how the different nations’ civilians have dealt with the plague that sweeps the nation of Zol. It’s very critical of people who are against science and vaccines or those specific people who let “faith” make the judgment call on whether someone lives or dies from this plague. On top of this film being a big fantasy epic and a medical thriller at certain junctions within the story, there is a huge human element to the overarching plot. Much of this film is about Van finding peace after losing his family to the plague and the war. It’s a journey of letting go of loss, not letting rage and revenge take the reins of your destiny, and embracing love and passion for life as he tries to protect Yuna from the grasp of both the empire, a hitwoman, and the source of the said plague. The film takes a substantial amount of time to make that the focus. It’s interesting, because you could assume from the trailer that the film is action-packed and thrilling, but it’s not. It has its big action moments, but it wouldn’t be accurate to call this an action film. It’s more of a drama, due to how the film focuses on dialogue, character dynamics, and more politically charged elements. There is a reason it earns its R-rating, and it’s not for the few minutes of blood that you see in the film.
Animation-wise, since this has a Studio Ghibli alumni, you can expect the animation to look not only amazing, but carry some of that Ghibli DNA through its lush visuals. There are superbly detailed backgrounds, grounded human designs, and fantastic physical animation in how things squash and stretch at points. It has a lot of those little character beats you would see in the director’s previous experience in animation. The designs may have a Ghibli touch, but they still stand on their own with Masashi Ando handling the character designs as well. You will find your eyes traversing dark caverns, misty swamps, snow-covered patches, beautiful grasslands, small fantasy villages, and ethereal forests. It’s also nice to see a lead character who doesn’t look like someone in their late teens or early 20s. It’s very rare we get animated films with adult characters, which is a bummer that being an adult lead character in a film is so rare, not only in anime but in animated films in general. The voice cast is also great. You have Ray Chase, Griffin Puatu, Erica Schroeder, Luciana VanDette, Doug Stone, Neil Kaplan, Frank Todaro, Keith Silverstein, Luis Bermudez, Chris Hackney, Doug Erholtz, Xander Mobus, and many others. Seriously, look up this cast. It’s fantastic. They do a great job alongside the original Japanese cast that includes Shinichi Tsutsumi, Ryoma Takeuchi, and Anne Watanabe to name a few from there. The music by Harumi Fuuki is quite elegant. If their name sounds familiar, it’s because Harumi composed music for Miss Hokusai, The Wonderland, Forest of Piano, and Tsurune. It’s a beautiful soundtrack that flows between pieces that are elegant, grand, imposing, and loving.
While it has some superficial elements to the Ghibli classic and can be a touch long at times, The Deer King stands on its own as a grand human journey. It’s a rock-solid debut for Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, and if this is what they can do with one film, people will be back for their next one. Hopefully, if you can, you should watch this cinematic journey of man’s conflict with human nature. Next time though, we will be talking about a film that has been in production for over a decade and switched studios to finally get released, and, well, we will have to see how things unfold when we finally talk about Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank.