The best children’s movies disguise important life lessons under an entertaining, colorful exterior. Back in 2000, Mamoru Hosoda directed Digimon: The Movie, which mostly skipped the moral teachings in favor of computer monster battles and an eccentric soundtrack. The plot of Hosoda’s new film, Mirai, bears a closer resemblance to a different animated children’s film from the same era: The Rugrats Movie. Like the 1998 Nickelodeon offering, Mirai is focused on a young boy’s struggle to deal with the arrival of an even younger sibling, but Hosoda’s characters navigate the situation by reaching a surprisingly beautiful understanding of the chaos and convergence of family life. A former only-child’s rage at no longer being the center of attention is usually solvable with age and maturity, but Hosoda’s film brilliantly brings its young protagonist to those lessons early by use of time-travel fantasy — and some spectacular animation effects.
When the movie opens, 4-year-old Kun (Jaden Waldman) has grown used to being the apple of his parents’ eye — so much so that he often doesn’t even bother cleaning up his toy train sets after playing with them. That all changes when mom and dad come back from the hospital with his new baby sister in tow. Kun is too young and self-centered to realize the new sibling is not the only change in his family life. His architect father (John Cho) is now adjusting to freelance life at home, while his mother (Rebecca Hall) wants to achieve a better work/life balance than she had when she gave up everything to care for baby Kun. All Kun sees, though, is his parents running to his sister’s every cry and then ordering him to play fair with her rather than indulge him like they used to.
His sister’s name, it turns out, is Mirai, which means “future.” That isn’t just for show. As Kun struggles to understand the shifts in his family, he gets an unexpected visitor in the form of his sister’s future self (Victoria Grace). As Kun goes on adventures with the older Mirai, he gradually becomes “unstuck in time” (as Kurt Vonnegut would have phrased it) and encounters other family members at different points in their lives. He meets his mom and dad when they were children his age suffering from problems he understands, and he gets important bike-riding lessons from his deceased great-grandfather. Kun even meets an anthropomorphic version of his dog, Yukko, who proves that even the family pets have inner lives and arcs of their own that don’t necessarily revolve around Kun’s happiness.
Despite the spectacular nature of the time travel, Kun’s encounters with these family members are often extremely plebeian, and that’s the genius of it. Like Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, Kun comes to realize that the millions of small moments that make up a life (which then in turn go on to influence other lives) are far more complex and beautiful than any magic or science could ever hope to be.
That’s not to say there isn’t spectacle. Hosoda imaginatively uses different animation styles to differentiate between the down-to-earth family stories and out-of-this-world time-travel sequences, climaxing when Kun winds up in an interdimensional lost and found staffed by what appear to be steampunk claymation robots. Such mind-boggling visuals are well-balanced with a grounded attitude and an appreciation for the little moments in life.