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“The Deer King” is just another Ghibli wannabe.

I’m going to be honest here.

I had trouble figuring out what was going on in The Deer King. I wasn’t entirely sure of most characters’ motives and the movie seemed more concerned with presenting the idea that all war is bad, rather than diving into the issues of colonialism despite the occupation of land being an important issue in the film.

The world’s magic is underdeveloped. Most of the time, I can just accept that a world has magic. But The Deer King tries to meld their magic system with scientific reality, in a way that left me baffled.

That isn’t to say the film is a total flop – it was beautiful, full of life and color; it had one of my favorite found family tropes and the characters were great. The Deer King’s message was muddled.

The film is based on the book duology of the same name. It is also the directorial debut of Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, both Ghibli veterans. The aesthetics and story of The Deer King certainly reflect the studio’s values and themes. 

But much like Studio Ponoc – it has all the trappings of a Ghibli film but none of the heart.

PLOT

Following a vicious war, the Zol Empire now rules most of the land of Aquafa. When a mysterious disease returns to the land, the Aquafarians are immediately blamed.

Only a former soldier, named Van, and an orphan named Yuna survive the attack. Even though the two settle down in a small village – unrest continues to brew and they find themselves at the center of the conflict.

The Good

Of course, the best thing about the movie is its art style and animation. Of course, it is. What else is there to say about it? The scenery? Lush and beautiful. The dogs carrying the disease? Looks like something out of Princess Mononoke. The little girl, Yuna? Adorable.

Everything else is pretty much a mess. Well, except for the fact that it has one of my favorite tropes: a gruff old man adopts an orphaned child.

Tropes

Almost immediately after the film opens – we are treated to a scene of the dogs attacking a salt mine for an unknown reason. The only two to survive are Van and Yuna – both slaves. Without thinking twice, Van scoops the little girl up and finds a way out.

Van lost his wife and son – so Yuna becomes a surrogate family. He doesn’t resent Yuna and there’s never a sense that he would abandon her just because she’s a nuisance.

It’s a nice change – and when people ask if Yuna is his daughter, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes. And Yuna seems to have no qualms about claiming him as her father. It’s very sweet and The Deer King does show the growth of their relationship during their journey.

Honestly, I have no issues with Van or Yuna. It’s the other characters who don’t get as much attention and time that I have an issue with.

The Bad

The pacing in The Deer King is all over the place. While the first half of the movie goes by at a leisurely pace – it also tends to cut between several different sets of characters, just barely establishing their goals and then setting them off.

Eventually, the groups collide. But their dynamic never gets set up well enough for me to care. The only pairing I really enjoyed was that of the Zolian doctor and his bodyguard which made for some great comedic relief.

But other than that – there just wasn’t much to it. With so much going on, nothing gets enough focus. Especially the politics of this world. While the dynamic of the two nations is important to the film, the conflict is never well established. Real political discussion and world-building remain under-discussed.

Political Woes

The Deer King is a very politically charged movie. It deals with occupation and colonialism. Zol invaded Aquafa – but the former cannot conquer it all because of the Mittsual – a deadly disease that the Aquafarians appear to be immune to.

In a lot of ways, the film sympathizes with the Zolians. The Zolian doctor Hohsalle goes after Van and Yuna, believing Van’s blood holds the cure to the disease. Meanwhile, two Aquafarian leaders plot to use the Mittsual to their advantage.

In the end, it turns out the Aquafarians are immune partially because of their traditional diet. Those who lived under Zolian rule don’t have the antibodies to protect them and therefore can also die of the disease.

This isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself – similar things have occurred throughout history. My issue comes from the fact that there are Aquafarian leaders who plan to weaponize the disease. I have no issue with indigenous people wanting invaders off their land. But the way these leaders are presented rubs me the wrong way.

Maybe it’s because we don’t know a lot about Aquafarian politics outside these two collaborators and an extremist group. Or maybe it’s because as a Jewish person, I’m all too familiar with the idea that a marginalized group is the one responsible for spreading disease. 

So – the fact that the movie seems to take the Zols’ side in this – doesn’t make me feel great.

The Scoop

This film was ultimately disappointing. It’s unevenly paced. It tries to interweave the protagonists’ stories and the political machinations of both sides, which doesn’t work.

The Zol having blue as their main color while the Aquafa people having red kind of threw me off. Obviously, Zol is supposed to sound like the Latin sol meaning sun while Aquafa refers to water…

So why do the Aquafarians wear red?!

It’s this little thing that kept confusing me throughout the film. It’s the associations the words have with the colors. 

I really wanted to enjoy this movie, and though I liked parts of it – I can’t say that I did. just take issue with too many aspects.

The Deer King also supports my theory that the Studio Ghibli films, since this basically a Ghibli film, based on books don’t work as well as the ones that were original ideas. (I consider Ponyo to be an original story, because while it has elements of The Little Mermaid – it can stand alone.)

And that’s the scoop.

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Grade: B –

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Release Year: 2022

Length: 114 minutes

Directors: Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji

Writer: Taku Kishimoto

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