Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron" is his first feature film in 10 years.

Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

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The 21st century superhero boom has also been a boom (or booms?) of multiverses. Movies like “Into the Spiderverse,” “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “The Flash” and many more are fascinated with the possibility of possibility. What if you hadn’t made that mistake? What if you got bitten by the wrong radioactive spider, or even by a radioactive cat?

Noah Berlatsky

Different worlds may include different evil alter-egos, but they also give you the chance to be someone different, cooler, better. With enough worlds, anyone — everyone! — can be their very best heroic self. Lots of choices give you, and you, and you lots of paths to empowerment.

The Boy and the Heron,” the latest animated film of legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, sounds at first like it may be in that empowering multiverse tradition. It’s about a young boy, Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) who travels to another world to rescue his dead mother.

In this case, though, the alternate reality serves not to open up possibilities, but to close them down. Imagining different outcomes is ultimately a reminder that the only outcome is the one you’re in, the way staring at the double in a mirror is a reminder that, however much you might wish otherwise, you’re still you. That doesn’t make the film a tragedy, exactly. But it does give “The Boy and the Heron” a lyrical weight that sets it apart from even the best of the recent multiverse epics.

Miyazaki is probably the most important Japanese animator of the last 50 years. He’s known for his seamless ability to combine realistic depictions of the natural world with fantastic characters and situations in films like “Princess Mononoke” (1997), “Spirited Away” (2001), and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004). He also has an acute sense of tragedy coupled to a hard-won optimism about human possibility; Miyazaki’s worlds are detailed, wondrous and bittersweet.

“The Boy and the Heron” is in the tradition of the director’s best. The movie opens with the night that Mahito’s mother, Hisako, died in a hospital fire in 1943. The next year, Mahito’s father, Shoichi, marries Hisako’s sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), and moves from to her country estate to manage his munitions factory. Mahito is polite to his new mother, but you can see it costs him an effort. He has trouble adjusting to school, gets in fights and strikes himself in the head with a rock so he can stay home.

Hayao Miyazaki's first feature film in 10 years, The Boy and the Heron is a hand-drawn, original story written and directed by the Academy Award-winning director.

Mahito also is increasingly irritated by a gray heron that keeps appearing at his window. Eventually, it reveals teeth, and a big-nosed goblin head inside its beak. It tells him his presence is requested … somewhere.

That somewhere turns out to be another world. Natsuko disappears, and the heron taunts Mahito, telling him to rescue her and Mahito’s mother, who the heron says is still alive. Natsuko follows the bird/goblin to a mysterious tower, supposedly built by his great uncle. He enters, and comes out somewhere else, in a world stalked, improbably, by giant flesh-eating parakeets. Also his mother’s elderly maid Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki) is a daring young woman sailor who feeds cute round white blob creatures seafood so they can fly into the stars and become babies in Mahito’s world.

As that description suggests, the other world of “The Boy and the Heron” is more like Alice’s Wonderland than like Marvel’s Earth-41 or Earth-65. The film isn’t mapping out a careful continuity of alternative realities with coherent histories and canon. Instead, it’s tracing the contours of a dream.

Hayao Miyazaki's first feature film in 10 years, The Boy and the Heron is a hand-drawn, original story written and directed by the Academy Award-winning director.

Mayazaki gives even the most surreal set pieces — like a mass pelican attack — a feeling of hyper-real, inevitable beauty. He also has Lewis Carroll’s gift for making nonsense conform to the logic of anxiety. Mahito keeps trying to find Natsuko (or is he trying to find his mother?) even as the world slips its moorings and drifts off on weird tangents. Why do a bunch of stacked blocks control the shape of the world? Why is the king of the parakeets negotiating with Mahito’s great uncle? What’s with the angry stones?

As Carroll knew, and as Miyazaki reminds us, the one alternate world that everyone does visit is the one we find behind our eyelids every night. Dreams can sometimes feel like they open up possibilities. But just as often they’re about disempowerment, as we lose control of memory, emotional response, embodiment, time sense. Nor are dreams an escape in any meaningful sense. You go elsewhere not to change things, but to come back. When you wake up, the real world is still there, with all its losses and stubborn griefs in place.

Mahito’s griefs, in particular, follow him. He resents Natsuko and misses his mother. The trip to another reality offers him the opportunity to fix what went wrong — except of course that it doesn’t, really. One of the film’s most haunting images is of Mahito touching what he thinks is his sleeping mother, only to have the figure dissolve into a viscous liquid, as Mahito steps back and then back again to avoid letting any of it touch his shoes. The new world recapitulates the old, especially in the way it falls apart. All the many doors just lead to the same place; that other alternate world we get to visit besides dream, which is death.

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That sounds bleak, and “The Boy and the Heron” is in many ways a sad film, steeped in failure and loss. But Miyazaki has always been a filmmaker of optimism, too. The recognition that this is the one world we’ve got has some bitter in its sweet; it’s this world, after all, in which Mahito’s mother lived, and in which his sibling is going to be born. Part of the allure of dreaming of different possibilities, Miyazaki suggests, is to imagine your way back into the one possibility you have and figure out how to live with it and in it.

“The Boy and the Heron” isn’t empowering except in the sense that it’s about Mahito learning to live with his own limited power — a fate that magic herons, or bows and arrows or a quest can’t really change. The multiverse is just the universe plus regret, denial, hope — the human “power” of wishing things were anything but what and how they are. Miyazaki crawls out of that heron’s throat to lie and say there’s an escape. But it’s a gentle lie, and one that’s part of our one world, too.