Mirai is striking and profound but it never truly justifies its place in the animation pantheon.
It is inevitable that any animated film from Japan (or anywhere, for that matter) will be compared to the legendary work of Studio Ghibli, home to the films of Hayao Miyazaki Spirited Away. Naturally, Mamoru Hosoda’s bright-eyed Mirai is not that standard, nor does it try to be. While it takes on the frequent Ghibli theme of childhood wonderment, this film’s intentions aren’t as epic as Princess Mononoke. Hosoda does take a magical approach to its subject, but rather than tell a grand story, he focuses on one family, and on one boy in particular.
Mirai follows Kun, a precocious young four-year-old whose world is turned upside down when his parents bring home a new baby sister, Mirai. Though he’s initially fond of his younger sibling, he quickly grows jealous as she requires more and more of his busy parents’ affection. Kun becomes so frustrated by Mirai’s presence that he lashes out at his parents. After one such outburst Kun flees to the garden where he encounters the family dog, Yukko, who has taken the form of a man. Yukko felt just as bad when Kun arrived as the boy does in the face of his little sister.
In this magical garden Kun meets family members from the past and the future. The most significant of these is the teenaged Mirai, with whom Kun embarks on several adventures. The appearance of this older Mirai is among the film’s most powerful tricks, grounding it as a family drama while also establishing its speculative bonafides.
Though the film is consistently engaging and at times touching, the stakes are low for this type of affair. In an animated feature, the impossible becomes possible. But Mirai is content to take on themes that could have just as easily been approached in a live-action film. The animation work here may well be gorgeous, but it always feels as if it could have been bigger, grander and bolder. The film’s incidents are often quite normal, and it’s aesthetic seems to follow suit. Particularly in terms of its character design, the film recalls such ‘90s television shows as “Rugrats” and “Beavis and Butthead” more than the work of Ghibli or Disney.
The many artistic flourishes in Mirai often feel disconnected from the main narrative, like vignettes inserted to show off the team’s technical prowess rather than organic parts of the story. Occasionally these vignettes soar, but that only makes one wish for more from the main action.
The overall impression that Mirai leaves is striking and profound. But it never truly justifies its place in the animation pantheon. Even animation that takes on the minutiae of human life should stake a claim for itself, a reason for why animation was necessary to tell the story. This film doesn’t rise to those heights, though it succeeds in telling a story that addresses fascinating themes and effectively captures poignant moments in the inner life of a child.