The Deer King, 2022.
Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji.
Featuring the voice talents of Shinichi Tsutsumi, Ryoma Takeuchi, Anne Watanabe, Hisui Kimura, Atsushi Abe, Yoshito Yasuhara, Toru Sakurai, Shinshu Fuji, Tomomichi Nishimura, and Tesshou Genda.
The last survivor of a band of warriors is enslaved in a salt mine. One night, savage dogs attack and a mysterious disease wipes out everyone at the mine. The warrior escapes with a little girl, while a gifted physician looks for a cure.
There’s a lot of world-building in The Deer King, with much of it being at the expense of the vital bond at the center of the animated feature. Coming from directors Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji (alongside screenwriter Taku Kishimoto), the story takes place in a fantastical setting involving a pair of warring kingdoms that eventually settled on a truce because one side (Zol) was mysteriously unaffected by a global disease. Whether or not it was just the Aquafa defending themselves from more land taken over remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say that the script gets bogged down in the specifics of these rulers and the particulars of history.
Elsewhere, a warrior representing another faction, The Lone Antlers, is put to work under harsh physical conditions in a salt mine. One day, what appears to be rabid dogs attack everyone, leaving them bloodied and mangled and dead (somewhat jarring considering the distributor of the movie is GKIDS, but I suppose the core of the film and messages are family-friendly enough). Meanwhile, the aforementioned Van is unaffected by this and seems to come away with spiritual powers from the mauling. He also takes care of a terrified young girl, escaping and traveling together.
A physician is also introduced to assess the damage and figure out what the hell is responsible. He also turns out to be the most interesting character here, as he is not aligned with the Aquafa or the Zols. His job is grounded in science and finding answers. Whether or not anyone believes the conclusions he comes to is up to them. Naturally, once he gets wind of Van not only surviving but being immune to the disease (which I suppose is unique because he is not technically one of the Aquafa?), a tracker is hired to locate him and bring him back as his blood holds the answers. Unsurprisingly, the heartless tracker will learn a thing or two about right and wrong.
In addition to the nonstop world-building jargon and backstory, we also see that the Aquafa leaders are scheming against the Zols (by the way, it’s impossible to get over that a kingdom with their name derived from the word “Aqua” uses red as their trademark color, while the conquering villains are adorned in blue). None of it is compelling and continues to take away from the story of Van, a warrior still reeling from a great tragedy that has found a new lease on life looking after a little girl. The story is so focused on everything else that a connection is barely formed between the two.
What’s left is a narrative devoid of wonder and charm; it’s bootleg Studio Ghibli. Even The Deer King‘s climactic emotional moments feel cliché and empty. The voice cast assembled is trying their best, and the film is tolerable, but there’s nothing to it beyond reworked ideas you can find executed better almost anywhere.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]