An odd mish-mash of animation that blends conventional Disney-friendly elements with spiritualized woodland aspects normally associated with Hayao Miyazaki, The Day of the Crows is a little bit of everything. As it dabbles in various narrative threads, whether it be a boy’s first love, to coping with his mother’s loss, to yearning for patriarchic acceptance, first-time director Jean-Christophe Dessaint lacks a sense of how to unite its various thematic elements for great affect. Solid for individual elements of its episodic structure, the film’s lacking directorial presence provides a fairly simplistic take on a rich emotional terrain.
The picture’s initial premise contends with the plight of a giant ogre-like man named Pumpkin (voiced by Jean Reno) who instills fear in his unnamed son of the outside world. Living in a ramshackle hut in a forest, Pumpkin imposes a level of dread on the surrounding fields. Dessaint and writer Amandine Taffin explore the spiritual aspects of the forest in a manner similar to Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro though they abandon the existential aspects of their narrative for some more traditional plotting. This actually provides the context for a more interesting component to The Day of the Crows, which follows the young boy’s love interest in Manon. The delicacy of their blossoming friendship as it works in contrast to the boy’s strained relationship with his father is the film’s greater leaps toward creativity. However, as Pumpkin recovers from an injury and takes his son back to the forest to uphold their isolated lifestyle, the picture descends into an overly convoluted tale of self-discovery and flashback-driven narrative detours.
There’s ambition to The Day of the Crows that should be commended. While sacrifices may have been made in its character models, the landscapes are gorgeously drawn (again, reminiscent of Miyazaki’s work). And while the film can be a messy exploration into the growth of a young man following in the towering footsteps of his father, there’s great emotional heft to the material. Perhaps I may have been more welcoming of the film had I not recently seen the similarly emotionally trying, ParaNorman, but much of The Day of the Crows’ narrative structure lends to convenience. Conflict is resolved in haste and narrative ends are tied conclusively without ambiguity. While a majority of animated films fall under this description, The Day of the Crows lingers on particular emotional details with a sense of touching on something greater. But as the case with its off-and-on narrative structure, the picture simply lacks a directorial vision to see any of its ideas through.