Even with its kid-friendly anime conventions,“The Boy and the Beast” has fantastic characters that make the fantastical worlds they live in feel real. The film might surprise some with preconcieved notions about anime. Case in point: when I told my mom I was going to watch an anime movie, she expressed shock that a theater would show two hours’ worth of “that weird Japanese cartoon thing you watch on YouTube.” But there is anime that rises above the skepticism, and “The Boy and the Beast” is a good example of why.

The Beast Kingdom is inhabited by anthropomorphized animals, as the name suggests. In it, the difficult and lazy beast Kumatetsu (Kōji Yakusho, “Shall We Dance?”) is competing against the orderly Iôzen (Kazuhiro Yamaji, “One-Punch Man”) to succeed the kingdom’s retiring Lord. On the advice of the Lord, Kumatetsu looks for a pupil to teach so he can get inspired to train harder. The Kumatetsu and teacher Iôzen are devoted to practicing kendo, which harkens back to a simpler time in Asia when martial arts masters lived through more drama than “Dance Moms.” Meanwhile, in the human world, young Kyuta (Shōta Sometani, “Bakuman”) is devastated by the sudden death of his divorced mother in a car accident. Since his father is absent, he must be taken in by new legal guardians. But he won’t stand for it. The driving force of the movie is presented right away through the dialogue, making the plot easy to follow. Instead of staying, Kyuta runs away in the bustling streets of Tokyo full of rage. The anger at his mother’s random passing is taken seriously, refreshingly validating the strong emotions of a child protagonist. Kyuta encounters Kumatetsu and follows him to the Beast Kingdom, where he becomes the beast’s student. The leap of faith makes sense after seeing the tragedy Kyuta is trying to escape. Eventually, he is drawn back to the human world and is torn as he looks for what his place is in both. The close relationship that Kyuta and Kumatetsu develop make the emotional conflict palpable.

The clear exposition of the characters’ lives at the beginning of the movie brought their respective worlds to life. After knowing Kyuta’s situation, his reactions to the Beast Kingdom felt natural in spite of its fictional complexity. Their friendship was successfully constructed by showing how similar their personalities are, while still maintaining their uniqueness as individuals.

The animation is stunning. The landscapes at times looked like actual photographs of Tokyo. The background characters’ movements were so vivid that at first glance, I thought I was watching video footage of the city. The swooping zoom-ins of both worlds were disorienting because I’ve never seen such human movement from such wild angles.

Just like in real life, the characters are fleshed out with both virtues and flaws. There are no stereotypical good guys or bad guys vying for the viewer’s sympathy (or disdain). This let the plot organically grow from its characters, which kept the plot from feeling predictable.

The film does have a few childish points that detracted from its authenticity. The fighting sequences between Kumatetsu and Iôzen felt a little like TV anime – unnaturally slow, with little action. These scenes focused on how determined the two are on beating each other while avoiding the need to actually show them beating each other. The kingdom’s Lord, a cute, mustachioed bunny with a silly sing-songy voice, was used as a fairly cloying comic relief. But, taking into consideration that “The Boy and the Beast” was made for a family audience, I think these shortcomings are excusable.

This movie follows in the footsteps of Studio Ghibli in making the universal adventure of a young lead character relatable to a wide audience. I got excited seeing Kyuta come into his own in the magical Beast Kingdom, remembering the sense of adventure and hope I felt as a little girl reading fantasy stories. Age is not a factor in enjoying a fun adventure if the story is told well.

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