In “The Boy and the Beast,” the latest animated feature from Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda (“Wolf Children”), a street urchin is taken in and raised by anthropomorphic animals. But it is the world of man, not beast, that makes this coming-of-age movie most touching.
The son of divorced parents, nine-year old Ren (voice of Luci Christian) takes to the streets after his mother dies in an accident. Through an alley, he stumbles onto a parallel world where he’s taught discipline by Kumatetsu (Jon Swasey), a volatile bear-like creature who wears clothing and speaks. The film’s first act is an uninspired fantasy variation on “The Karate Kid,” as Ren — renamed Kyuta — is tutored not by a human elder, but an animal. These scenes play out against stylized backdrops that are almost photorealist. Unfortunately, the character design of the animals is, by comparison, flat and underdeveloped. Watching the lion-man Iozen (Sean Hennigan), you might find yourself wishing that his mane would shift in the wind a little bit as he moves.
After Kyuta has grown from feral child to awkward young man (Eric Vale), our hero spends more time among humans, where he meets Kaeda (Bryn Apprill), a teenage girl who, like him, also feels like an outcast. The dynamic between these lost teens lends the film needed emotional weight, especially when Kyuta begins to search for the father who abandoned him as a child.
Ultimately, Kyuta must choose between living in the world of beasts or humans, while learning to navigate rivalries between and within those worlds. Despite the film’s fantastical elements, his choice is easy: The human conflicts are more resonant. In “The Boy and the Beast,” man must overcome his natural impulses of darkness and vengeance. The world of animals isn’t a viable narrative alternative.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence and strong language. The theater will screen the film in two versions: English-dubbed and the original Japanese, with subtitles. 119 minutes.