Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/01/18 13:57:02

"A growing-up cartoon."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I'm guessing that a great many of us older siblings are going to watch "Mirai" and be amazed that our parents did not justifiably murder us. We almost certainly had it coming, even if we were toddlers at the time, and I don't know of many other movies that have focused so strongly on that particular stage of growing up, certainly not with the charm and visual whimsy that Mamoru Hosoda brings to this one.

That Hosoda is himself able to thread the needle between sympathy and awfulness is a huge part of what makes Mirai work, because 4-year-old Kun is an authentically horrifying kid not taking the arrival of his baby sister well at all, but he's drawn and animated in a way that reminds the audience that he's still learning how to act - him carefully navigating steps too big for him to use easily is actually adorable in addition to being a reminder of just how far he is from being mature. It's just enough to offset the natural inclination to ask what is wrong with him every time he does something bratty or worse, and also quietly establishes a baseline for him to grow from. One of the ways that animation can sometimes be more believable than live action is to make characters visually match going from kids to adults to seniors, but there's also a lot of difference between 4 and 5, and you maybe don't notice how much Kun's appearance and movement has changed over the course of the film until stills from the beginning run during the credits.

What makes him grow up? Well, time, but along the way Hosoda gives the family home a magical enclosed garden where the family dog can take human form and grumble about how he used to be the prince of the house, he can meet a fifteen-year-old Mirai, or follow a path that leads in the other direction to meet family members when they were younger. There's not necessarily a real-world explanation given for this, nor is one strictly necessary; I like to think the great-grandfather he meets is impossibly cool because that's how he's portrayed in the family's stories, even if it makes an earlier sequence of Kun, teen-Mirai, and human-Jukko seem unlikely (although, now that I think of it, maybe it didn't actually require reading…). It puts the story somewhere in between a fairy tale and a peek into how a small child whose brain has not yet fully grasped the difference between fantasy and reality learns and grows. It's just enough to stitch the various flights of fancy that make up the movie together, from and adult's perspective; maybe it seems a bit less cobbled-together for a kid, and I suspect this will seem more clear a second time through.

It does on occasion feel like Hosoda has a bunch of related ideas that allow him to set up different sketches and types of imagery and seem clever for how he directs between them. Which, admittedly, is pretty clever, even before considering that a leading architect was hired to make the house itself nudged the story in the right direction. Though the film is identifiably Hosoda's style visually, little diversions from what he laid out at the start pop up - the younger version of Kun's great-grandmother suggest the style of early, Tezuka-era anime, for instance, while the horrors Kun imagines take on a storybook style in one case and a bit of CGI artificiality in others, leveraging how digital elements can seem out of place in traditional animation even as fear makes a railway station a scary place in the train-loving Kun's mind. A couple of scenes feel like clear callbacks to Hosoda's earlier films, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, and every sequence is impressive, but they almost stand alone a bit too well. Maybe ideas like the "oak-tree index" should have been more clearly integrated from the start.

I can only speak for the voice work on the subtitled version, though GKids has put together a promising English-language cast, with Rebecca Hall and John Cho voicing the parents. On the original soundtrack, Moka Kamishiraishi pulls a tough assignment as Kun, but she does a nice job of making him sound immature and headstrong without resorting to obvious baby talk (at least based on tone to my admittedly inexpert ears, though Kun isn't subtitled that way either). Kumiko Aso and Gen Hoshino capture the parental vibe that Hosoda is trying to communicate with his writing and his team's illustration impressively - mother and father are imperfect and prone to a little snippiness, and as exhausted as you might expect for a young couple with both a newborn and a demanding kid like Kun.

Like those parents, you can sometimes see Mamoru Hosoda straining a bit here, his storytelling not seeming quite so effortless as seemed to be the case in his previous movies. Still, it's generally better to have too much imagination rather than too little, especially if you're as good a filmmaker as Hosoda and never lose sight of what you're trying to do even as you try and be as unshackled as your four-year-old hero.

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