Movie Review: “The Deer King” rides a doe in this anime quest fantasy

A “chosen one” and a “chosen child” ride a doe to their destiny among the Lone Antlers and Fire Horse People in “The Deer King,” a lovely if somewhat cluttered anime fantasy from GKIDS.

It begins with a mountain of back-story and piles exposition — new characters, new locales — almost all the way through the third act, which tends to make this simple quest tale drag as it lumbers towards its finish.

In a time of Black Wolf Fever, the uneasy dominion of the conquering Zolians and the subjugated Aquafa is upset when a prisoner of the salt mines, Van, battles an onslaught of wolves about to kill an orphaned toddler named Yuna. Van survives the bite, which spreads Black Wolf Fever, and develops super strength. He rescues the babe, whom he raises as his own in a peaceful nomadic village in Aquafa country.

But this plague has brought the court physician of the Zols, Hohsalle Yuguraul, to visit the infected Aquafa and their “priest doctors.” He is sure there’s a reason this disease only used to infect the Zols, and that it’s not some superstitious curse. To “transcend history and dispel fear” he must find, observe and test Van’s blood to see if it offers a cure.

The female tracker, Sae, is sent to find Van and the child so that the physician can explain his theory and perhaps save all who are swept up in the plague, which manifests itself in a purple tsunami of wolves, spreading the contagion far and wide.

“Saving the body saves the soul,” the physician explains.

Van just wants to get the child to safety and this quest lets him accidentally discover the breadth and depth of his various new superstrengths.

This is a pretty and pretty violent film directed by animators who worked on “Paprika” and “Spirited Away” and a screenwriter who has specialized in anime TV series. That explains why the story is almost overwhelmed with plot flourishes, characters and agendas. There’s a TV season’s worth of exposition jammed into this thing.

The violence takes the form of bloody wolf attacks, arrow impalings and knife and sword fights, with Van enduring many a bandage thanks to the brutal assaults.

It’s not the easiest tale to follow. Perhaps more explanations and discussion of competing agendas, treachery and old grudges would have helped. The “emperor” keeps track of this Medieval Japanese world via magical balloons called “The Emperor’s Eyes,” but we never see this chase unfolding in a way that the emperor sees. Considering all the ideas cribbed from Tolkien, it seems a shame the “seeing stones” were forgotten.

I saw the Japanese (subtitled) version of “Deer King,” which made viewing a bit of a grind, I must say — A J.K. Rowling sea of names of foods, characters, places, legends, illnesses, ridable (and milkable) magical deer and the like — rather like the Old Testament-endless pages of creatures, names and what-not that that give a kind of tortuous texture to Tolkien

“The Deer King” isn’t on a visual par with the best anime, most of it generated by Studio Ghibli. But it’s head and shoulders above the TV mass-production look of “Dragonball” and its ilk. I’d say the same for its story, but that could have used some serious editing before production began.

Genre fans may eat this up, but it’s not anything I’d call a “must see” film, despite its obvious ambition.

Rating: R, for some violence

Cast: The voices of Shin’ichi Tsutsumi or Ray Chase, Anne Watanabe or Erica Schroeder

Credits: Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, scripted by Taku Kishimoto. A GKIDS release.

Running time: 1:53

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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