Skip to main content

You think you can work in a fire-breathing chicken?

Kubo and the Two Strings
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Laika studios have received much acclaim for their undoubtedly first-rate stop motion animation technique, but I’ve tended to the lukewarm on their output’s overall quality. Coraline was a strong feature debut, but both ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls came up short for me. Kubo and the Two Strings represents a significant uptick, one that shows off a mastery of tone and atmosphere, but it also suggests Laika still need to beef up their script department.


Kubo’s a movie about the power of storytelling that ironically exhibits significant deficiencies in storytelling, and an animation about the power of intergenerational forgiveness that fudges the delivery, but the sheer technical artistry on display is something else, imbuing a lyrical, dream-like quality that far exceeds the scope of their last couple of pictures in depth and resonance.


Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson) is a master storyteller, holding his village rapt with unfinished tales and magical origami, which he introduces with the warning “If you must blink, do it now”. But his real tale is one of familial abuse in which his grandfather took one of his eyes and is intent on taking the other, such that his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) fled with him. When Kubo goes out after dark, against his mother’s instructions, Sariatu’s creepy flying sisters Karasu and Washi (Rooney Mara) find him – reminiscent in style of A Chinese Ghost Story and he must flee again, this time on a quest to find his samurai father Hanzo’s protective armour, accompanied by a miniature, origami version of his dad to guide him. That, and a made-flesh snow monkey as his protector. Along the way, Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) joins them, a samurai trained by Hanzo who has lost his memory and been turned into a part-stag beetle.


Monkey: Magic is not supposed to be easy. It needs dedication.

There’s a danger in using magical and fantastic devices in stories in that the temptation is to assume anything goes. Kubo’s powers come from his mother, of the lineage of the Moon King (his grandfather). It isn’t abundantly clear what exactly the Moon King is or does, other than having beefs with samurais and wanting to extract his grandson’s eyes (to make him immortal, or to divest him of empathy for others, such that, unable to see into the windows of their souls, he will become cold and callous – a wonderful message for blind people everywhere to take away there).


The Moon King isn’t human, but he becomes human at the end in a rather confused, if undoubtedly nobly-motivated decision on the part of writer-director Travis Knight and his co-scribe Arianne Sutner. The idea is one of forgiveness, but it rather serves to embrace the healing power of lies as the defeated, amnesiac old man is allowed to rest easy in his dotage, with Kubo and the entire village telling him what a wonderful fellow he is. So what’s the message here? Forgive and forget? Who does that serve? How does one learn or atone if one considers it acceptable to leave perpetrators under a veil of illusion?


It’s additionally curious that Kubo pulls its punches, having been so upfront in leaving its title character bereft of both his parents – the picture’s a dark one, both thematically and atmospherically – by presenting him with the consolation of their Force ghost incarnations to comfort him (apart from anything, when he says “I still need you”, we can’t help but feel he doesn’t actually, and this is a sop from filmmakers who have lost their nerve at the final hurdle).


Washi: You’ve been together all this time and haven’t even realised?

There are other questions too, such as why Monkey/Sariatu (one of the reveals is that she considered it best not to tell her son she had used magic to become Monkey, for reasons that don’t entirely connect) doesn’t recognise Hanzo (I’m assuming his face hasn’t changed), why/how/when Hanzo hid his armour, particular since he was preparing to go and find it, and why Hanzo was cursed rather than killed as originally planned. To an extent, none of these are deal breakers, and the picture is sufficiently invested in its own abstracted milieu, in a Wizard of Oz fashion (I was half expecting the entire story to be revealed as a story within a story), that they don’t largely, significantly, detract, but you’re left with a nagging feeling that Travis and Sutner were entirely laissez-faire with notions of internal logic.


The picture’s take on existence and the hereafter is a bit of a patchwork too, in which, we are told, when we die we shift and transform “so we can continue our story on another plane” (apparently the one Ben Kenobi goes to). Meanwhile, the Moon King, in whatever realm he exists (non-corporeal, it seems) warns Kubo that if, he doesn’t give up his eye, “You’ll be stuck down here, in this hell” to which Kubo replies that for every terrible thing down here there’s something far more beautiful, which at least strikes a marginally optimistic note, if not an outright denial.


The voice cast serve the story extremely well. Theron’s suitably stern and serious, while McConaughey is having a whale of a time, pitching his delivery somewhere between Buzz Lightyear and Patrick Warburton, served a succession of hugely winning comic relief lines and moments. There’s also the very wise advice that Kubo should include a chicken in his story (“The chicken is funny”), something Moana astutely lived by. The character design work is sympathetic and evocative, eschewing the tendency to the grotesque of previous Laika offerings. Dario Marianelli’s score is a beauty (if the visual effects deserved an Oscar nod, the score did even more so).


With a bit more work and a few more drafts, Kubo and the Two Strings (not a great title) might have been the masterpiece many have acclaimed it to be. Which makes it sadder that the box office response was tepid at best. These pictures don’t come cheap, and there just doesn’t seem to be the same appetite for them as their crowd-pleasing CGI big studio cousins. Still, Laika aren’t over with yet, with another animation due next year. Knight, however, the production company’s president and CEO, has hitched his cart to a bereft franchise, signing up to direct Transformers spin-off Bumblebee. Somehow, I don’t think “depth” will be thrown around to describe his live-action debut.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.