BASICALLY…: A former warrior (Chase/Tsutsumi) escapes a disease-ridden mine with a young girl (VanDette/Kimura)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
You might have seen the trailer for The Deer King and thought to yourself, “well, this looks like one hell of a Studio Ghibli clone” – and you’d be right. Not only does the film hail from Ghibli’s anime studio rival Production I.G. (the company behind such movies as Ghost in the Shell and Miss Hokusai), but its directors are also formidable Ghibli veterans, with Masashi Ando working as an animator for the likes of Princess Mononoke and Whisper of the Heart (as well as other non-Ghibli productions like Paprika and Your Name), while Masayuki Miyaji served as an assistant director on Ghibli’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Spirited Away.
It’s fair to say, then, that Ghibli’s influence runs swiftly through the blood of The Deer King – unfortunately, a true sense of magic and awe did not seem to survive the transfusion, for while the movie looks undoubtedly beautiful (the most basic requirement for pretty much any 2D-animated Japanese film at this point), it’s bogged down by padded storytelling that cannot capture the true majesty of the anime studio it’s clearly trying to be.
The film is set in the kingdom of Aquafa, which has since been taken over by the Empire of Zol following a lengthy battle between the two nations. In a Zol-operated salt mine, one of the prisoners, Van (voiced by Ray Chase in the English dub, and Shinichi Tsutsumi in the original Japanese version), is a former warrior who once fought for the Aquafaese people, and ends up surviving an attack by a mysterious pack of wolves carrying a deadly disease. During the attack, Van is bitten by one of the wolves, but instead of contracting the disease, he instead gains powers that bind him with nature (he can turn spears into sticks, for instance), and uses them to escape the salt mines with the only other survivor, a toddler named Yuni (Luciana VanDette/Hisui Kimura), and start a new life in a small village as a deer tamer. Both are pursued by competing forces, including a doctor desperate to use Van’s blood to develop a cure for the disease, and scheming politicians for reasons too complicated to even get into here, leading to events which soon force Van on a journey to right the wrongs in this unbalanced kingdom.
One of the issues with this movie is that it carries too much weight on its shoulders, to a point where you wonder if it should even have been a movie in the first place. A television series honestly would have benefited the storytelling much more, for it would have allowed certain factions to have been properly spread out and expanded upon, as opposed to just being crammed in to an already packed narrative. There are characters here who are almost never given a chance to explain their motivations because of time constraints, so some of their decisions and actions come across as extremely random and, at worst, make almost no sense. It also struggles with world-building, since a lot of backstory surrounding this kingdom and these two competing clans is largely relegated to hefty exposition dumps, which simply tell instead of show the viewer all sorts of things about how this world is supposed to work, and often leave them none the wiser about anything beyond that. It isn’t surprising to learn that The Deer King is based on a book series, because so much of what the film tries to do with its plot, characters, settings etc feels like heavy prose in a film format, and as such it struggles to contain it all in a restrictive two-hour runtime that desperately needs many more hours to fully go into more satisfying detail.
It’s unfortunate that people who have clearly been around Ghibli long enough to know its whimsy inside and out, can’t seem to emulate that same kind of magic for their own attempt. Granted, The Deer King is geared towards a more mature audience than, say, My Neighbour Totoro, but even that film managed to accomplish so much more with its environment, characters and loose plotting in significantly less time than this film does. Instead, it drowns itself in long-winded exposition that numbs rather than excites the audience, and makes the more fantastical elements feel extra confusing since not much context is given to justify the odd directions taken within this story. There’s not enough interesting characters to suck you in to the drama, very little within the actual plot to get invested in, and even the animation, while gorgeous to look at in parts, isn’t memorable enough to distinguish any of its visible fantasies from that of a much better and far more iconic anime studio.
While it’s something of a disappointment to anyone going in to this expecting something along the lines of Princess Mononoke (or even a serious version of those Hawk and Chick samurai parodies from Bob’s Burgers), it’s still inaccurate to say that The Deer King lacks any kind of ambition, because it certainly is trying to establish an epic fantasy world that has as much mystery as it does noble civilians – they just perhaps chose the wrong format to explore it in.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Deer King is a noble failure of an anime fantasy, for while it certainly isn’t lacking in ambition, it does have too much to cover in its short runtime, and should have been adapted for television to really expand upon the plotting, characters and worlds that feel extremely underdeveloped and unexciting in a film format.