Magic Boy has the distinction of being the second Japanese animated feature in color. The first was The Tale of the White Serpent (1958), released in the US as Panda and the Magic Serpent in July 1961. Since MGM distributed the English-dubbed Magic Boy in June 1961 (according to IMDB), it was the first to be seen in the US. That version is now available on demand from Warner Archive.
Sasuke is a boy who lives in the forest with his older sister and his little animal friends. When the faun’s mother is killed by a sea monster who is actually an evil witch (as indicated by traditional long black hair and chalk-white skin), Sasuke climbs a mountain to learn magic from a hermit. This takes three years, during which neither he nor the baby animals ever get bigger. After the obligatory training sequences, there’s a big fight—lots of death but no blood—in which he’s aided by the local handsome prince who’d been so unhelpful in saving the village from destruction by the witch’s army.
The style owes much to classic Disney, as does the narrative, which is dotted with adorable animals, but there’s no mistaking the fundamental Japanese spirit of the story and cultural details. The plot is simple and predictable, or “traditional”; clearly, most of the creative energy went into the design and animation, as was the case when Disney told traditional tales. The most annoying element is an ugly little girl who tags along with two comic-relief bandits and makes their life hell, similar to O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief”. She’s under no compulsion to reunite with her family, and it’s not surprising that nobody seems to be missing her either. The backgrounds are lovingly colored and varied, as when the witch does an interpretive dance to shifting abstract backgrounds and maddening, cacophonous music.
The Japanese folk-type tunes are left in the original language, but MGM added an English title song that explains the whole set-up at the beginning and then returns at the end to repeat everything we’ve just seen. The main Japanese creators from Toei are listed, but there are no voice credits. This widescreen print is unrestored, but the colors still look rich and beautiful, leading us to wonder how a true restoration would look. Perhaps the original Japanese version, Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, is on disc in that country, but English speakers can now access this reasonable facsimile.