There is something almost primal about the appeal of a good adventure movie, an irresistible siren call that promises rugged heroics, hair-raising escapes and forbidden magic. Unfortunately, Hollywood has recently struggled to capture that allure. Films such as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) and Jungle Cruise (2021) try so hard to capitalise on nostalgia for established adventure franchises like Indiana Jones or The Mummy that they fail to create anything new. However, the release of The Deer King (2021) has demonstrated that the genre remains alive and well in Japan, highlighting the growing chasm in creativity between the two cultures.
Set in a world split between two nations, the Aquafeese and the Zolians, The Deer King follows Van, a former knight who is given supernatural powers when he survives the deadly Black Wolf Fever. With tensions between the two nations running high, Van finds himself pursued by a number of interested parties, including a renegade Count and a relentless tracker, all hoping to use his abilities to further their respective causes.
Finding the perfect recipe for an adventure film is no easy task. However, when mixed correctly, the complex combination of ingredients can result in a light but an incredibly satisfying cocktail of fantastical fun. Fast-paced action, likeable characters, carefully managed comedy and a touch of magic all come together to make a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sincerity is key, which explains why recent efforts to build franchises on the back of theme park rides like Jungle Cruise have failed to scratch the adventuring itch.
In contrast, The Deer King seems to do all this, and more, with ease. Opening with a brutal canine attack on a slave mine, the film consistently builds momentum over the course of its two-hour runtime, combining complex world-building with spectacular set-pieces. One particularly tense encounter sees Van ambushed in a foggy marshland by assassins on stilts, who float in and out of sight with almost ethereal grace. Everything, from the richly textured animation to the fast-paced script and unique character designs paints a picture of a world trapped between the natural and the supernatural, in which anything can happen.
Part of the film’s charm lies in the way it infuses existing character archetypes with warmth and heart. Van may be a classic example of the stoic knight, but his burgeoning relationship with young orphan Yuna produces a sweet found-family dynamic. Similarly, whilst the enigmatic Count Orfhan appears sinister, lurking in the shadows with menacing intent, the film takes the time to demonstrate his bravery and dedication to his people.
The Deer King is also able to do something that Hollywood’s adventure films, which obsessively imitate the seminal swashbucklers of the 1930s, rarely even strive for. By throwing the audience headfirst into a complicated world of mysterious powers, political rivalries and ancient orders, The Deer King makes it impossible to immediately distinguish between good and evil. Each character’s motivations feel both authentic and understandable, adding an extra layer of tension when they inevitably collide. Most of all, The Deer King highlights the human cost of cultural conflict, with the camera lingering on a pair of bloodied scarves in a river, their owners having been killed by fearful locals. It’s a testament to the film that it can include such sombre imagery whilst remaining, at heart, a tale of wonder and whimsy.
Just remaking The Deer King for a Western audience is obviously not the answer. Previous attempts to Americanise Japanese stories, like the cinematic science fiction oddity Ghost in the Shell (2017), have shown that this approach risks making something that fails to appeal to either demographic. Instead, if American filmmakers want to create something truly groundbreaking, they need to start learning from their Japanese counterparts’ ethos of earnestness and innovation.
The Deer King’s loveable characters and stunningly realised world perfectly encapsulate the playful appeal of the adventure movie. Hollywood may be obsessed with digging up the past in the hopes of finding buried treasure, but the brilliance of The Deer King suggests it is time they start looking abroad for inspiration in their quest to resurrect the genre.