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The Deer King is based on a fantasy novel series by Nahoko Uehashi that was published in 2014 – so the elements that feel like parallels to the Covid-19 pandemic are simply “good luck”. After all, this is a story about a world-devastating pandemic that is killing some while sparing others, and the struggles that erupt as the planet begins to die. How current.

The film revolves around two strangers who are brought together by an impossible event. Opening years after a war that allowed the Empire of Zol to take over the Aquafa people and turn them into slaves, The Deer King begins the storyline with an Aquafa man working in a salt mine as a they are attacked by wild dogs that carry something called Black Wolf Fever, a deadly disease. Former soldier-turned-slave Van (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi) survives the attack and escapes with another survivor, a girl named Yuna (Kimura Hisui). Their sheer survival makes them sought-after runaways, as they may hold the key to reversing the course of a Black Wolf Fever outbreak.

This is one of those projects that just feels like it’s the wrong length. The writers either needed more space to tell this story, a story that likely has richer mythology in the novels, or less running time to streamline some of the broad melodrama and focus. Constantly explaining itself and its complacency, The Deer King begins with a lengthy scribble about the political power struggles and rarely takes the time to develop its world or the characters within it. There are noticeable visual highlights, but Ghibli’s strength lies in how it can combine its fantastical imagery with its storytelling, and the two don’t coalesce into a consistent vision here. Even as I admired some of the prettier imagery in The Deer King, I felt more and more detached from a story that sets itself up as something sturdy, only to actually be a fairly straightforward hero’s journey for a fallen soldier and an orphaned girl.

Of course, it’s unfair to compare a new Japanese animated drama to Studio Ghibli, even the filmmakers’ connection, but anyone who has seen Princess Mononoke will wonder if the two are related just because of their visual and… thematically so similar are similar. The hard truth is that Princess Mononoke creates a three-dimensional world in minutes, while remaining unbroken in nearly two hours. And while I admired some of the compositions of this film in the last act, I couldn’t tell you what the message is here. Some of the politics of this film are, politely, a bit muddled.

I love GKIDS (the studio behind the release of this film) and everything they stand for and I understand that this kind of Ghibli Lite fantasy film will be enough for some people while we all wait for something better. But they’d be better off just watching Princess Mononoke again.

Play in theaters now.

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