‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ Review: Michael Morpugo’s Novel Becomes A Timeless Castaway Fantasy – Annecy Film Festival

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Michael Morpurgo’s 1999 children’s book comes vividly to life in Neil Boyle and Kirk Hendry’s joint feature debut, a castaway fantasy in which a young boy learns vital lessons about the natural order of things. Seasoned screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce is on board too, and yet this is likely one of his sparsest screenplays yet, leaning into the subtleties of the animation: traditional hand-drawn 2D with mixed-media elements for the background. Older kids will likely love it, but a beautifully stark encapsulation of the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 may rule it out as something for the whole family.

It begins with 11-year-old Michael (Aaron MacGregor) setting off on a world cruise on The Peggy Sue with his parents (Cillian Murphy and Sally Hawkins) and sister (Raffey Cassidy). This is a normal family – the kids squabble and fight over their tasks – but Mum and Dad take their responsibilities seriously and work together as a unit (indeed, this whole trip “was your mum’s idea,” notes Dad). Michael is given the logbook to work on, drawing irreverent sketches of his family in its pages, according to his mood.

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Michael, however, pushes his parents’ patience a bit too far when it is revealed that he has smuggled their dog Stella onto the craft, but once the deception is revealed, a storm in the Indian Ocean sweeps both boy and dog away into the surf. They wake to they find themselves washed ashore a desert-island paradise, but it soon becomes clear that they are not alone.

The other human on the island is Kensuke (Ken Watanabe), who furtively greets Michael with bowls of water and fruit before making his appearance. He is an elderly Japanese man who speaks no English, but his exquisite watercolor paintings help him to communicate. Kensuke came to the island after his ship was bombed by the Americans, but not before finding out that his family, and indeed entire home city, had been wiped out in the final days of the Second World War. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kensuke is a humble man with a keen sense of karmic balance and an equally strong environmental conscience.

An awkward odd-couple friendship ensues, but, surprisingly, Kensuke’s Kingdom is more than just a gentle tale of human bonding, and it can switch tone in a heartbeat. Indeed, the standout moment is a tense action sequence that finds illegal poachers landing on the island and capturing the exotic birds that live there. Kensuke instinctively rounds up the local community of orangutans, but their baby falls behind. In scenes that more than match live-action for suspense, Michael tries to protect mother and child; the amount of emotion conveyed in Michael’s eyes alone is just extraordinary, and Stuart Hancock’s rousing old-school score does some impressive heavy lifting in this largely silent segment.

When help finally arrives, Kensuke’s Kingdom doesn’t waste much time on tearful reunions, and the sudden fade to black simply seems to seal the story in amber. The eco-emphasis may be fashionable, but its handling is respectful and, obviously, organic to the material. It also adds to the timeless quality of the animation, which alludes to a gentler, fairer time, far away from the place where we now find ourselves.

Title: Kensuke’s Kingdom
Festival: Annecy (Competition)
Director: Neil Boyle and Kirk Hendry
Screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce, from the book by Michael Morpurgo
Running time: 1 hr 24 min
Sales agent: Bankside

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