One of the few brand-name directors of animated features in the 21st Century, Hosoda Mamoru got that way through a most curious combination of radicalism and comforting familiarity. His 2006 international breakthrough, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, is a perfect example: it's a nervy time-travel sci-fi tale of a sort that seemed positively revolutionary in the West (I presume, on no evidence, that it was less so in Japan), while being basically a comforting throwback to the brainier sort of midcentury speculative fiction (it comes by this honestly, at least, being based on a 1967 novel). Nine years and three films later, that aspect of his career reaches its apex, maybe: The Boy and the Beast, which has the important distinction of being the only one of Hosoda's films to date which has no other credited writers than the director himself, is almost entirely devoid of meaningfully original ideas. But the way in which it packages its highly familiar content is utterly beguiling, enough to make its stock parts glisten.

So: a parentless child is taken away to a magical Otherworld where he learns important lessons and grows as a person, finding a comfortable slot in that world while always remaining importantly separate from it. That whole thing. The genius of it is in the details, of course, which start with 9-year-old Ren (Miyazaki Aoi) as the boy whose mother has just succumbed to an illness, and who runs away rather than ending up shunted with some barely-known relatives. On a lonely Tokyo night Ren crosses paths with two robed figures, visiting the human world from the beast world, which can only be accessed through a magical alleyway. These are the bear-like Kumatetsu (Yakusho Koji) and the monkey-like Tatara (Oizumi Yo), the former being one of two candidates to become lord of the beast realm once the current occupant of that seat, the rabbit-like Soshi (Tsugawa Masahiko), ascends to godhood. Kumatetsu, as we learn in the striking, gorgeous prologue, all in silhouettes and firelight, is a loner and lazy bully, and in order to prove his worthiness to take the mantle of leadership, he must first prove that he can train an apprentice in the ways of his fighting styles. With nothing better to do, Ren elects to chase the bear-man back to the beast world, forcing himself into the role of disciple, and the two clash over every tiny thing the might for several years, as Ren, renamed Kyuta, grows to young adulthood (Sometani Shota takes over the role), and Kumatetsu grows ever so marginally less lazy and arrogant.

Take out the magical realm of humanlike animals (or animalistic humans; I'm not sure that it's a distinction worth making), and this is obviously every "gruff man finds his heart thawed by the capricious orphan/orphan grows to self-sufficiency under the tutelage of a snappish father figure who secretly loves him" story in the history of world literature. Adding a layer of the fantastic helps to color that in a little bit, but there's only so much that even a petulant bear-man can do to move the needle on this particular scenario. Still, there's something to be said for playing the classic old songs particularly well, and The Boy and the Beast is absolutely a strong and appealing iteration of the basic form: the two leads (and really all of the characters, but there's no doubt who we're meant to care about the most) are drawn as bold cartoon characters in big swaths of solid colors, but also with a highly malleable flexiblity around the face that makes them particularly open emotionally for our sympathy and frustration, as the script demands it. It's almost unnervingly easy to get wrapped up in these characters' stories, and to find the way they play out to be enormously gratifying as a result.

In fact, the point where The Boy and the Beast becomes the least successful, to my eyes at least, is exactly where it pushes hardest against the foreordained boilerplate of its genre: there's a development that takes the grown-up Ren/Kyuta back to the human world for chunks of time, and in addition to being vaguely suspicious as a plot development (it's made somewhat clear that hopping between worlds isn't just something you can do whenever), it adds wrinkles and complications that Hosoda's script isn't particularly well-suited to investigate. It would be inappropriately spoilery to go into much detail; let it suffice to say that there are ways of complicating surrogate father/son relationships that are elegant and character-driven, and there are ways that are contrived. It knots up Ren's development as a character while largely ignoring Kumatetsu's, and leaves a potentially rich narrative line comparing Ren's life with another, sadder adopted child to be largely an exercise in implying emotional resonance beneath a thick swath of ginned-up conflict. Though I will cop to forgiving all the film's sins when it finds a way to work its shaggy plot add-ons back into a wholly weird and phantasmagorical climactic battle on the streets of the human world with the giant shadow of an invisible whale. I think that comes close enough to describing it accurately.

The point being, anyway, that the film's missteps are concentrated and backloaded, while its strengths are scattered all about with a amiable looseness. The opening sequence, by far the film's most familiar, is the most charming, funniest, and most brightly-paced; the sudden chronological jump in the middle of the film imbalances it just enough to make it interesting and ambitious. Plus, the whole movie is quite lovely to look at: besides the highly expressive characters, The Boy and the Beast boasts some marvelous backgrounds, with the inky, strong shades of the human world replaced with warmly-colored storybook paintings in the beast world, a simple shift in visual cues that gives the film an exaggerated boost in narrative clarity and emotional resonance. It's easy to fall in love with the world depicted onscreen, which is maybe the film's best strength: the imaginative elements of the character design make this all elaborate fantasy, but the cozy tangibility of the backgrounds make it all surprisingly homey. That's the most comforting thing about a most comforting film, and also the best way that it aligns us to the characters and makes us feel like we're taking part in their lives. None of this is at all groundbreaking or unimaginably sophisticated, but it works so very well to make for an involving, admirable family film.