Masashi Ando makes his directorial debut with the new GKIDS release “The Deer King” a beautifully animated fantasy epic that recalls his work on some of the most successful Japanese anime films including “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Your Name.” Co-directed by Masayuki Miyaji who once served as Hayao Miyazaki’s assistant, the story of a plague ravishing a kingdom has parallels to the current pandemic and images of bloody violence, possession, and savage animal attacks which make this outing too frightening for young children but everyone else should enjoy this throwback to the Studio Ghibli era.

The story’s protagonist Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi) with his chiseled jawline, muscular physique, and towering frame provides a nice contrast to his sidekick a young girl named Yuma (Hisui Kimura) who becomes his surrogate daughter. The two survive an attack by a pack of rabid dogs carrying a disease known as Mittsual that begins spreading rapidly across the kingdom. It’s revealed that the sickness is part of a curse as the story takes a supernatural tone.

Supporting characters include a young physician-healer named Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi) who resembles an animated version of elven prince Legolas from “Lord of the Rings” and a warrior named Sae (Anne Watanabe) whose character was inspired by Imperator Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Since Van and Yuma were the only two survivors of the diseased dog attack that wiped out 600 salt mine workers at the film’s beginning, Hohsalle believes that a cure lies with the duo’s blood, especially Van’s. Politics between two rival groups, the Zolians, and Aquafaese, at times, convolute the story that is strongest when the focus is on the relationship between our hero and his daughter, who becomes possessed by supernatural forces in a bid to overthrow the kingdom.

Fans of “Princess Mononoke” will notice several similarities between the 1997 Hayao Miyazaki epic and “The Deer King” including the meaningful role of animals — elk and deer are the go-to rides for our protagonists — purple haze, impending war, quirky sidekicks, and arms with superpowers that pack a wallop. There’s also at least one scene that recalls “Spirited Away.”

The animated film marks the first time in over two decades that Ando and key animators Kenichi Konishi and Kenichi Yoshida have worked together, the trio collaborated on 1999’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas.” The animation in “The Deer King” is stunning with vibrant colors and beautifully drawn characters comparable to the Studio Ghibli classics. The horror elements and mature storyline are a big plus, although at times it is challenging to remain engaged with the film as the energy level drops between action segments. Still, a marvel to behold.

(3 stars)

Fathom Fan Preview Screenings on July 13 & 14. In Select Theaters Nationwide July 15

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.