A pack of otherworldly wolf creatures sweeps through a mining town, leaving a deadly disease in its wake. None survive but a prisoner with a mysterious past named Van and a young orphan girl named Yuna who latches onto him. They try to live in peace together, but trouble keeps following them wherever they go. Could it be because of the unearthly voice Van hears in his dreams, or the strange powers he’s developed? As the virus ravages nearby villages, Van and Yuna may be the only ones who hold the key to saving everyone...
The Deer King – or Shika no Ou in the original Japanese – is a new film by Production I.G based on the 2014 novel series of the same name. It released in select US theaters on July 15, 2022 (distributed by GKIDS), and we’re here today to let you know whether this fantasy epic should be counted among the classics of the genre or if it’s just an imitation of its lofty predecessors. Let’s get started!
A New Adventure with a Ghibli Pedigree
If you grew up watching Studio Ghibli films, The Deer King’s animation will look pretty familiar to you. That’s because director Masashi Ando and several of the key animators are Ghibli veterans, having served important roles in the production of films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. So does that mean that the animation in this movie is jaw-droppingly amazing? Well... yes and no. The painted backgrounds are beautiful, bringing the rural fantasy setting to life with rich colors and visible brushstrokes. The forests are filled with diverse flora and fauna, and the unsettling “Emperor’s Eyes” balloons that loom over the horizon look almost alien above the more primitive settlements. There are also some absurdly detailed character animations that you almost never see in anime, such as a frighteningly realistic choking scene and the subtle movements of the many animals we see throughout the film.
However, it isn’t all sakuga all the time. Most of the film’s runtime is taken up by relatively boring shot compositions and the character designs aren’t especially memorable. Princess Mononoke, a 25-year-old movie and The Deer King’s biggest inspiration, looks better in every way. And Production I.G were behind Psycho-Pass, FLCL, Ghost in the Shell, and the reboot of The Legend of the Galactic Heroes – we’ve seen them do outstanding work before. Overall, despite some moments of greatness, this movie doesn’t fully live up to its distinguished pedigree.
Lovable, Realistic Characters
Where The Deer King shines, though, is in its characters. The three most important people in the cast are Van, Yuna, and Hohsalle the doctor, all of whom feel like real humans with their own lives and views on the world. Van is a stoic wanderer reminiscent of Mad Max, complete with a long-gone wife and child who he quietly mourns when he has time to himself. And while he’s resistant to Yuna’s clinginess at first, he warms up to her and comes to treat her as his own child. His speech about wanting to watch her grow up healthy and find someone she loves one day is so heartwarming, even for those of us who don’t have children of our own.
Yuna herself is a mischievous little scamp who’s one of the most realistically written child characters we’ve ever seen in anime. She runs up and tells random things to strangers, listens to her voice bounce up and down while she rides on a deer, and even tries to imitate her dad’s ability to calm animals (nearly getting herself killed in the process). She reminds us a bit of Anya from Spy x Family – a perfect mixture of precious and precocious that makes us want to both protect her and watch her get up to some ridiculous antics.
Hohsalle initially starts out separate from Van and Yuna, but comes into contact with them once it becomes clear that Van’s immune blood could hold the cure for the virus. He endeavors to cut through the tangled web of political and spiritual elements that have been allowing the disease to spread, focusing all of his energy on saving people no matter what it takes. His journey toward finding the cure provides a nice intellectual counterpart to the emotional development that Van goes through.
Who is This Movie For, Exactly?
After weighing the pros and cons of the animation and story, we’re left wondering one thing – what kind of audience is The Deer King supposed to be for, exactly? You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a family film, but it’s actually rated R for some extreme violence early on (Princess Mononoke was only PG-13). There’s also the deadly virus, which would likely be disturbing to children especially after what the world’s been through in the past few years, and some truly obtuse political subplots that make little sense even to adults.
So is it for grown-up fans of Ghibli films? That doesn’t seem to be true either, since The Deer King operates on a level of moral simplicity and easy conflict resolution that would feel more at home in a magical girl anime. No matter who you are, large chunks of this movie are just not going to work for you.
Masashi Ando’s debut film shows a lot of promise, but doesn’t really work as a whole package. It’s trying too hard to be both a Ghibli movie and Mad Max, not quite nailing the vibe of either one. Still, if you’re an animation nerd, love parenting stories, or just want to watch a doctor fight a virus and actually win, we can definitely recommend The Deer King.
What did you think of our review? Have you seen The Deer King yet? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!