The Boston International Children’s Film Festival at the MFA, currently on an encore run after a previous stint in April, is a spin-off of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, a popular event running yearly since 1997 that’s exposed audiences to a wide variety of innovative, inventive, challenging family features. The festival and its distribution wing, GKids, provide arty alternatives to a market that can get all too same-y and lowest common denominating. One of their proudest accomplishments, no doubt, has been helping introduce the work of Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest of Japan’s animators, to Americans (they were screening his movies long before John Lasseter forced Disney into releasing them, and have been responsible for the repertory screenings that have been traveling around the country over the past two years). Wolf Children, which I recently saw screened at the MFA, comes from Mamoru Hosoda, younger director long often described as “the next Miyazaki”, and you know what, that praise is deserved.
Hosoda previously helmed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a fun time travel romance that’s unfortunately out of print on DVD, and Summer Wars, a family-drama techno-thriller that I’d rank as one of the most entertaining animated movies of all time and fortunately is available on DVD and Blu-Ray thanks to GKids and Funimation. Both could be rightfully be compared to Miyazaki’s work in terms of quality and attention to detail but they’re very different sorts of movies from those Miyazaki makes. Wolf Children could be seen as an attempt by “the next Miyazaki” to make something resembling an actual Miyazaki movie. This was a folly for Makoto Shinkai, another young animator given a ton of hype who squandered most it by the time his uninspired Miyazaki rip-off Children Who Chase Lost Voices came around, but Hosoda’s managed to stay great and true to himself while working within the fantastic slice-of-life style of such classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Like Totoro and Kiki, Wolf Children is leisurely paced, vivid in its depictions of nature and community, beautifully animated, almost painfully adorable, and deep enough that older viewers might get more out of it than younger ones, though there’s still plenty for kids, especially those of the smart and sensitive sort. It’s a drop on the darker side (where Totoro implied the threat of mortality, there’s actual death in Wolf Children). It’s a tearjerker; if one sad scene doesn’t make you cry, there will be another one that will. Between Hana, a single mother struggling to raise her half-wolf offspring in the middle of the countryside and deal with their growing independence, Yuki, the rambunctious older daughter struggling to suppress her animal nature in school, and Ame, the sickly younger son who finds himself drawn away from humanity, there’s plenty to connect with. Sad as it is, it’s no downer of a movie. It’s imbued with a real love of life, both human and animal life, and it’s always a pleasure to watch even as it gets incredibly heavy and tense.
If there’s a problem with the movie, it’s the ending. Not the content of the ending itself, which is just as thoughtful and emotional as what came before it, but the sense of something lacking. The issue comes from the movie’s framing device, an older Yuki narrating the story. We hear her narration, but we never actually get the chance to see her grown-up, and I wanted to get the chance to catch up with her and Ame in the future simply to get a sense that things will be OK for them. The movie leaves them young and still struggling, which is an acceptable artistic choice, but the narration made it seem a bit incomplete. I want to see them older and how, or if, they’ve come to accept their dual-nature. They seemed to have made some choices in the movie, but the choices you make as a kid don’t always last forever, so I want to know if things change for them, or if they stay the same, and if they stay the same then if that’s turned out to be a good thing or not. That I’m even asking these questions shows how invested Hosoda got me into these characters.
The Boston International Children’s Film Festival continues through Sunday, September 1st. Wolf Children will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray November 26th, and hopefully will get a full theatrical release before then (if it does manage that, it better be up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars next year).