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A quarter-century ago, Japan’s Princess Mononoke (1997) broke new ground for animated fantasy epics, depicting warring humans and magic beasts in a bygone era. Directed by Miyazaki Hayao, its staff included Ando Masashi, an animation supervisor and character designer on the film. Ando took those same roles on other exceptional anime: Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), Kon Satoshi’s Paprika (2006) and Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name. (2016).
Ando assumes those mantles once more on The Deer King. He also shares the director credit with Miyaji Masayuki, who directed the lively historical adventure anime Fusé: Memoirs of a Huntress (2012). But it’s Princess Mononoke that The Deer King most recalls, and overwhelmingly so. It’s another adventure set largely in the wild, where the deer-riding hero contends with magic wolves amid forests and rivers.
Like Princess Mononoke, the hero ends up at the centre of a conflict without wishing to fight either side. More seasoned than most anime heroes, Van is a stolid former warrior who saves a little orphaned girl while escaping his underground dungeon, and comes to love the toddler as a father. Unfortunately, Van is sought by warring human parties: he’s strangely immune to a mysterious plague ravaging the land. A scientifically minded youth hopes Van offers a cure; a shaman entwined in a tree thinks Van is a chosen one.
Based on books by Uehashi Nahoko, the film has more resonances than the obvious one – the return of a plague that brings countries to their knees. Beyond the off-putting fantasy names (the contending countries are called Aquafa and Zol), this is a story of occupation and indigenous resistance – though Ando inserts telling vignettes that suggest that even the liberation fighters offer little more than bloodshed. Van himself has renounced such conflicts, loving his adoptive daughter without worrying about blood or culture. By the film’s second half, when he searches the wilderness for his kidnapped daughter, he recalls the heroes of some classic Westerns, less remote and more tender than Japan’s equivalent archetype, the samurai.
Yet for all his ruggedness and nobility, Van is too stolid to be very interesting – one reason why this well made, well-meant film feels hollow. Despite the beauty of its verdant world, there’s something fatally inert about The Deer King which even the sweet dad-daughter story can’t solve. It lacks momentum and electricity, or a bravura set-piece like – to take an example from the film’s spiritual predecessor – a lone girl’s hurricane attack on a town in Princess Mononoke, dashing over rooftops. Any adventure film needs forceful characters and confrontations – elements The Deer King sorely lacks.
► The Deer King is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.