‘The Deer King’ Film Review: Post-Ghibli Anime Delivers Better Setups Than Payoffs

·5-min read

The uneven Japanese animated fantasy “The Deer King” often resembles the sort of Studio Ghibli action-adventure that made animation figurehead Hayao Miyazaki famous internationally, especially “Princess Mononoke” and “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” “The Deer King” not only looks like those Studio Ghibli staples, but also follows a plot that recalls Ghibli-style high fantasies: two warring feudal kingdoms try either to capture or enlist Van (voiced by Shin’ichi Tsutsumi in the Japanese version, Ray Chase in the English dub), a resourceful ex-soldier who may or may not be immune to a devastating plague.

Comparisons between “The Deer King” and Studio Ghibli’s better known movies seem inevitable, especially given how many of this movie’s creators learned their traded as animators and animation directors at Studio Ghibli, particularly co-directors Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, and key animators Kenichi Konishi and Kenichi Yoshida. Thankfully, what works in so many Ghibli movies also mostly works in “The Deer King,” given the craft and consideration brought to the project by Ando, Miyaji, and their animation team.

Most of what doesn’t work in “The Deer King” stands out during its belabored and anti-climactic finale, when too many dangling sub-plots either don’t come together or don’t amount to much. Even a mid-credits sequence feels like an inadequate attempt at giving viewers closure following a convoluted story about the peaceful kingdom of Aquafa and the occupying forces of Zol.

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Van and his young daughter Yuna (Hisui Kimura/Luciana VanDette) represent the Aquafaese, who share an uneasy truce with Zol and the nation’s out-of-touch rulers. Multiple parties try to locate Van given his seeming immunity to “mittsual,” a deadly virus that’s rumored to affect only Zol’s citizens and not the Aquafaese. Meanwhile, the black wolves that carry mittsual rip apart the Zolian kingdom just before Emperor Utalu (Yutaka Aoyama/Doug Erholtz) visits Aquafa from his castle in Zol.

Van’s antibodies seem to be the Zolians’ only hope for a cure and also maybe a sustained peace with the Aquafaese. Unfortunately, Van’s more concerned with Yuna, who gets kidnapped by Kenoi (Tomomichi Nishimura/Frank Todaro), a mysterious forest shaman. So the real heroes of “The Deer King” are the two relatively level-headed Zolians who try to reason with Van: curious physician Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi/Griffin Puatu) and skeptical tracker Sae (Anne Watanabe/Erica Schroeder).

The over-elaborate set-up and underwhelming pay-off of “The Deer King” suggests that its creators struggled with key parts of Nahoko Uehachi’s books, especially scenes that establish Van’s complicated relationship with Aquafa and also the surrounding natural environment. Kenoi tries to enlighten and recruit Van through a series of spacey visions, all involving psychedelic tree roots and generic exposition about spiritual kinship with any and all things.

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The underwhelming payoff to Van’s story inadvertently highlights the main thing that sustains “The Deer King”: its creators’ focus on the more familiar parts of Uehachi’s scenario. The movie stalls whenever ungainly expository dialogue hints at major plot points or power struggles that either distract from Van’s complicated story or simply aren’t presented in a compelling way.

Ando and Miyaji’s team seem especially out of sync with screenwriter Taku Kishimoto’s adaptation whenever they follow-up on pre-established plot points, especially scenes involving a Zolian coup planned by Utalu’s scheming adviser Tohlim (Yoshito Yasuhara/Doug Stone) and the corrupt Aquafaese leader Ohfan (Shinsu Fuji/Keith Silverstein). Utalu’s son Yotalu (Atsushi Abe/Chris Hackney) lurks on the periphery of this busy subplot; he gives orders and makes occasional comments while staring off into the middle distance.

It’s also not surprising to see that the quality of animation in “The Deer King” doesn’t compare well with Studio Ghibli’s more formative titles, whose high-quality standards were famously enforced by Miyazaki. Most of the human and animal characters in “The Deer King” bring Studio Ghibli to mind, but none of them move as gracefully nor emote with as much range.

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Van and a few other key characters may also be more reserved than most Ghibli protagonists, but even Yuna often expresses her child-like exuberance through unconvincing gestures and features. Yuna’s enormous grin, saucer-sized pupils, and hyper, unsteady movements suggest that her creators imagine her less as a character and more as the quintessential child. So while Van and his daughter may look like they belong in a Ghibli movie, they also lack the enlivening details that might convince you of their individual personalities.

“The Deer King” fitfully comes to life whenever its creators aren’t focused on moving the plot forward, like when Hohsalle and Sae defend themselves from attacking stilt-walker warriors. Unfortunately, “The Deer King” fatally (and repeatedly) stalls as its plot starts winding down and its creators lunge for a character-driven moral to a symbolically freighted parable.

Once the movie’s erratic wrap-up begins, it eventually becomes clear that there’s not enough time to address the heavier implications of Kenoi’s prophesies. There’s barely enough time to establish Van’s relationship with his daughter beyond a few perfunctory scenes where he either describes what he likes about her, or simply lets Yuna’s idealized kid behavior speak for them both. If these characters moved or acted with their own internal logic and dynamic rhythm, then “The Deer King” might not have seemed like an ersatz copy of better fantasies.

“The Deer King” screens as a Fathom Fan Preview July 14 and opens in US theaters July 15.

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