The Toronto International Film Festival kicked off its 48th edition with the North American premiere of “The Boy and the Heron,” the first feature from animation icon Hayao Miyazaki in a decade and the picture that is likely to serve as his cinematic swan song.
The 82-year-old filmmaker isn’t doing any promotion for the film, so he wasn’t on hand at the Princess of Wales Theater on Thursday to look out at the adoring crowd of film lovers, who cheered every time his name or that of Studio Ghibli, his creative home, was invoked. And while the applause that greeted the film was more appreciative than rapturous, the movie and its fantastical story of grief and growing up was warmly received.
“For me no film shows the power of cinema as an art form that’s both personal and global more than the one you’re about to see,” Cameron Bailey, the CEO of TIFF, told the audience shortly before the lights dimmed and Studio Ghibli’s logo flashed across the screen. He went on to tease Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” as the “…most mature, dazzling expression of his vision.” But he also alluded to the fact that there are sadder reasons to savor the bold and imaginative world the maestro conjured up.
“It may well be the last we see from him,” Bailey suggested.
Studios and A-list talent usually view Toronto as a key stop on their awards season campaigns, but this Oscar race is unfolding in the shadow of two labor strikes that have left screenwriters and actors on the picket lines. That means that most stars aren’t making the trek to Canada this fall — with the exception of a few who have been granted waivers by the Screen Actors Guild to do publicity. That means fewer red carpets and a lighter presence from film journalists. But the crowds still showed up. King Street, which serves as the festival’s main hub, was thronged with locals and Viggo Mortensen, here with his directorial effort, “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” created a stir as he was glimpsed entering a neighborhood restaurant.
And while the festival would love to turn the page on COVID, which limited its 2020 iteration, rising rates of the virus meant that a greater number of audience members were masked. People flinched or shifted uncomfortably every time someone coughed or sneezed.
As for “The Boy and the Heron,” it unfolds during World War II, as a young boy, mourning his dead mother, struggles to adjust to life with father and his new wife, who also happens to be his aunt. There’s also an alternate universe, where he must battle fearsome parakeets (yes, you read that correctly) and contend with a powerful wizard with whom he shares a bond. It’s all very…Miyazaki.
Critics seemed to like the film with a few gripes. Variety‘s Peter Debruge wrote, “[Miyazaki] hasn’t done anything to tarnish his filmography. Nor has he expanded it in the way ‘Spirited Away’ did.”
But another masterpiece might have been too much to expect. Shortly before “The Boy and the Heron” began, Junichi Nishioka, an executive at Studio Ghibli, took the stage. “I hope this will be a wonderful two hours for everyone.” And, based on the laughter and applause among the packed house at the Princess of Wales, it was.