One lucky human will decide which of two anthropomorphic (m)animals — unruly ursine Kumatetsu or his well-behaved, half-boar rival Iozen — gets to rule an exclusive parallel realm in “The Boy and the Beast,” the latest hyper-imaginative anime marvel from “Wolf Children” director Mamoru Hosoda. While Studio Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki shifts his attention to CG and short-form toons, Hosoda (who’d been attached to direct “Howl’s Moving Castle” at an early stage) nobly forges ahead with the labor-intensive art of hand-drawn animation, serving up an action-packed buddy movie that strategically combines several of Japanese fans’ favorite ingredients: conflicted teens, supernatural creatures and epic battles. Although only festival auds and genre devotees will show much interest abroad, locals have flocked to see how Hosoda has supercharged elements of “Digimon” (the series where he first gained notice) to deliver his highest-grossing domestic hit to date.
Whereas “Digimon” was rightly criticized for being an opportunistic “Pokemon” rip-off, “The Boy and the Beast” impressively reconfigures popular aspects of Japanese folklore, mythology and mass entertainment into a relatively fresh narrative, one whose satisfactions hinge largely on the personality of its characters — and therefore, also on the foreign voices chosen to play these characters in various international versions yet to be cast. While two-time Japanese Academy Prize-winner Koji Yashuko (“The Eel,” “Shall We Dance?”) captures every surly nuance of Kumatetsu’s renegade personality in his native language, it’s a thrill to imagine how Bill Murray (who plays Baloo in Disney’s upcoming “Jungle Book” reboot) or John Goodman (the Baloo of straight-to-video “Jungle Book 2”) might adapt the incorrigible bear-beast for American ears.
The film tells the story of the personal trials and ultimate redemption of the two wildly mismatched characters alluded to in its title. Beastly Kumatetsu is described as rough, crude and selfish, a self-taught samurai fighter with a He-Man-caliber physique and the head of a (not especially cuddly) bear, while the boy in question is an angry nine-year-old named Ren (Aoi Miyazaki) — later rechristened Kyuta, according to his age. Moments after adopting a tiny, rice-eating sidekick of his own, Kyuta spots Kumatetsu and his chimp-faced companion Tatara (anime regular Yo Oizumi) roaming the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district and follows them down a narrow alley and into Jutengai, a world inhabited exclusively by bakemono, or shape-shifting supernatural creatures with animal qualities (and a virtually limitless range of expressions in the hands of the right animators).
Humans are strictly forbidden in Jutengai, though the world’s lupine leader Soshi (Masahiko Tsugawa) is willing to make an exception. Soshi has ruled this relatively peaceful domain for long enough, and he’s decided to retire and reincarnate himself as a god, but before he does, the bunny-monk plans to choose a successor. Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji) would be the obvious and virtually uncontested choice, but Soshi has a hunch that Kumatetsu’s renegade spirit might be a better fit for the job. Peace has proliferated this long largely because the bakemono refuse to allow humans in (it seems homo sapiens are far too easily possessed by Darkness, as an early scene with an angry Kyuta illustrates), but Kumatetsu needs an apprentice to compete, and Kyuta is the only soul willing to abide his temper.
What follows is a mentorship montage 180 degrees removed from “The Karate Kid” or any number of conventional kung-fu character reinventions: Kumatetsu proves to be a disastrous teacher, losing his temper at the slightest provocation, while Kyuta actually manages to outsmart his mentor, getting the better of the cranky old bear in a series of amusing scenes that compress eight years of rigorous training and personal evolution into a rowdy bonding experience. And just about the time Kumatetsu and Iozen are set to spar for Soshi’s throne, Kyuta (now voiced by Shota Sometani) returns to the human realm, where he falls in love, patches things up with his long-lost dad and becomes obsessed with the book “Moby Dick” — a hefty reference whose themes will resonate when the appearance of a massive whale avatar puts him in the Ahab-like position of facing his own demons.
Though it piles all sorts of emotional baggage onto a series of already-tired believe-in-yourself cliches, Hosoda’s over-complicated script has the virtue of expressing itself less via words than it does through truly spectacular set pieces. Early on, we might have expected the showdown between Kumatetsu and Iozen to serve as the toon’s climax, but in one of the film’s many surprises, it proves to be little more than an amuse bouche for the feast-your-eyes visual buffet to follow — rendered all the more dynamic by a detail-rich sound mix and nearly deafening orchestral score. In traditional anime fashion, things have to spiral into full-blown supernatural pandemonium before balance can be restored, though Hosoda orchestrates this chaos with a poetic sense of what each must do for his own salvation, giving the title characters their respective whopper-unities to prove themselves as the most heroic boy and beast who’ve ever lived.