Khoi Vinh’s review published on Letterboxd:
I went into this resolved to curb my general skepticism of Miyazaki. It’s heretical, I know, but his films have never really hit for me, as much as I admire their formal spectacle. I know that to enjoy the director’s flights of fancy one has to be willing to give over to dream logic, and perhaps also be willing to forgo the notional constructs of Western drama. The absence of action rising and falling according to familiar patterns, of every little detail functioning as a contributory to the main stream of the narrative—these are givens in Miyazaki’s world.
Watching film in this way is not my default mode, but doing so is practically a prerequisite for “The Boy and the Heron.” This movie is as close to a dream-like mashup of fantastical callbacks as you can imagine; astute viewers will recognize elements of Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Disney’s “Fantasia,” Grimault’s “The King and the Mockingbird,” and even Kubrick’s “2001,” among others—not to mention many echoes of previous Ghibli joints. They’re all blended together with audacious creative energy, an astounding riot of liminal invention.
But like most of the director’s films, the character work is woefully underserved, including, as usual, a protagonist who is practically a blank slate. This has been my single biggest complaint about the director’s past films and this absence of true character development is in full effect here again. Not only is there a true dearth of motivational justification for Mahito’s journey, but there’s also no sense of who he is outside of the events of the film; he is purely a product of the crisis at hand, with no sense of his relation to others, including his family. As a result, it’s incredibly difficult to feel invested in his story; as he navigates repeatedly upturned worlds that turn one into another with no concrete rules or logic in evidence, like an interminable music video stripped entirely of its music, you’re lost as a viewer, stranded without any real toehold in the narrative.
In the end, “The Boy and the Heron” feels most like some kind of fantastic dream that Miyazaki had and tried to share with the world, rendering it on screen with spectacular, unprecedented visuals in an attempt to to invite the audience into his subconscious. But, just as in real life, there are few things harder to feign interest in than someone telling you about that crazy dream they had last night*. The result, ironically for something so teeming with energy, is pure boredom.
(*Apologies to my wife, who tries to have this conversation with me every morning.)