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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Captain Freedom to wardrobe. Captain Freedom to wardrobe on the double.

The Running Man (1987)
(SPOILERS) Now here’s a Stephen King/Richard Bachman adaptation that could do with a remake. The actual date of futuristic dystopias clocking round is usually a cue to compare and contrast, and no doubt in two years there will be legion Blade Runner articles doing precisely that (and damning/feting the worthy/tragic sequel). Actually, they might be doing it with The Running Man too, since it’s only a worldwide economic collapse announced in the opening crawl that occurred in 2017; the events of the movie also take place two years from now. Nevertheless, it has garnered some attention (most notably an Empire article) this year. Working against celebrating its anniversary on either date is that isn’t much cop, nor was it ever considered to be.

Imagine a plant that could think... Think!

The Avengers 4.12: Man-Eater of Surrey Green
Most remarked upon for Robert Banks-Stewart having “ripped it off” for 1976 Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom, although, I’ve never been wholly convinced. Yes, there are significant similarities – an eccentric lady making who knows her botany, a wealthy businessman living in a stately home with an affinity for vegetation, an alien plant that takes possession of humans, a very violent henchman and a climax involving a now oversized specimen turning very nasty… Okay, maybe they’re onto something there… – but The Seeds of Doom is really good, while Man-Eater of Surrey Green is just… okay.

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It (2017)
(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the hor…

You better watch what you say about my car. She's real sensitive.

Christine (1983)
(SPOILER) John Carpenter was quite open about having no particular passion to make Christine. The Thing had gone belly-up at the box office, and adapting a Stephen King seemed like a sure-fire way to make bank. Unfortunately, its reception was tepid. It may have seemed like a no-brainer – Duel’s demonic truck had put Spielberg on the map a decade earlier – but Carpenter discoveredIt was difficult to make it frightening”. More like Herbie, then. Indeed, the director is at his best in the build-up to unleashing the titular automobile, making the fudging of the third act all the more disappointing.

Don't worry about Steed, ducky. I'll see he doesn't suffer.

The Avengers 4.11: Two’s A Crowd
Oh, look. Another Steed doppelganger episode. Or is it? One might be similarly less than complimentary about Warren Mitchell dusting off his bungling Russian agent/ambassador routine (it obviously went down a storm with the producers; he previously played Keller in The Charmers and Brodny would return in The See-Through Man). Two’s A Crowd coasts on the charm of its leads and supporting performances (including Julian Glover), but it’s middling fare at best.

Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)
(SPOILERS) I’d heard Marmite things about Tom Ford’s sophomore effort (I’ve yet to catch his debut), but they were enough to make me mildly intrigued. Unfortunately, I ended up veering towards the “I hate” polarity. Nocturnal Animals is as immaculately shot as you’d expect from a fashion designer with a meticulously unbuttoned shirt, but its self-conscious structure – almost that of a poseur – never becomes fluid in Ford’s liberal adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel, such that even its significantly stronger aspect – the film within the film (or novel within the film) – is diminished by the dour stodge that surrounds it.

You can look dope, can’t you? Sure you can.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017)
(SPOILERS) Is there a new “Vin Diesel model” for movie successes? The xXx franchise looked dead in the water after the Vin-less 2005 sequel grossed less than a third of its predecessor. If you were to go by the US total, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage was a similar flunk. And yet, a sequel is guaranteed. The key to this rehabilitation appears to be borrowing from the Fast & Furious franchise rule book (or the one operating since entry No.5, at any rate): bring on the international casting and sit Vin at the top as their leader. The only difference being, here Diesel is having appreciably more fun.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.