By Kerry Lengel | Gannett News Service
Magical passageways to other worlds are a go-to device in children’s fantasy, including Japanese anime, most notably in Hayao Miyazaki’s breathtaking “Spirited Away.” The latest example is “The Boy and the Beast” from director Mamoru Hosoda (“Summer Wars,” “Wolf Children”).
And while it’s not quite the instant classic that “Spirited Away” was, it is nonetheless an inventive and, yes, spirited addition to the genre.
The story follows 9-year-old Ren, who has lost his mother and runs away from the gruff relatives who propose to take him away. After a shocking encounter with a furry-faced stranger on city streets, he follows the stranger through a narrow alley and finds himself in the kingdom of Jutengai, peopled by anthropomorphic “beasts” with the heads of bears, boars and monkeys.
There, he becomes the apprentice of Kumatetsu, a lazy, boasting, ill-mannered warrior who doesn’t know the first thing about teaching youngsters, whether beast or human, the art of war. “First you grip the sword,” he growls. “Then whoosh and bam.”
The fantasy world is a familiar one akin to that of “Kung Fu Panda,” filled with inscrutably wise masters whose lessons aren’t always readily apparent. But the unlikely father figure of Kumatetsu and his odd-couple bond with Ren have a freshness that will appeal to young people who tend to clash with authority, which, of course, is pretty much all of them.
It’s also an “of course” that the master will learn as much as he teaches his pupil. Equally inevitable is that eventually, Ren will have to put his lessons, both physical and psychological, to use as the fate of both his worlds hangs in the balance.
Yet Hosoda, who is also the screenwriter, sprinkles his tale with fun literary and visual flourishes. His portrait of a modern city, often viewed through the lo-fi lens of security cameras, is perhaps even more vivid than that of the beast kingdom, and Ren’s climactic battle with an enemy inspired by “Moby-Dick” is a visual feast — even if it also unintentionally references “Ghostbusters” (“Choose the form of the Destructor!”).
“The Boy and the Beast” might not quite have the storytelling sophistication to win over every adult, but for teens and tweens in the midst of their own coming-of-age stories, it has the potential to be a wondrous eye-opener.
Funimation Films presents a film written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda. In Japanese with English subtitles, or dubbed in English. Running time: 119 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some violence and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.