Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Alternate Title:  The Cold Facts
One sentence synopsis:   A young boy with powerful origami magic sets out to retrieve the magical artifacts that will enable him to defeat his grandfather, the Moon King.

Things Havoc liked: Laika Studios is an interesting anachronism in Hollywood today, a stop motion animated film studio founded by Nike chairman Phil Knight, whose specialty is the sorts of children's' movies that have never really existed beyond early 70s Christmas specials and big budget epics from the mid-1930s. Beginning with Coraline in 2009, Laika has carved quite a nice little niche for itself in the realm of studio animation dominated by giants like Pixar-Disney, and Dreamworks. The last film of theirs that I saw was 2012's Paranorman, a very good movie that showed a lot of promise, and following one or two short or lesser-reviewed films, they have returned four years later with a movie that got so much hype, I was frankly worried.

Set in mythological Japan, Kubo and the two strings is a fairly standard hero's journey tale with a style that is entirely non-standard, a stop-motion and practical-effect-laden aesthetic that is simply gobsmacking in its richness and style. Animation can do wonders, this we would all know even if we weren't smack in the middle of the Third Golden Age of Disney, but Laika's greatest strength has always been the way that their laborious, hand-crafted art style and stop motion design produces a truly unique effect on-screen, and Kubo may be their magnum opus insofar as such things are concerned. Every frame of the film is drenched in art, from the earthy sequences of Kubo's local village, to the truly fantastical designs of his aunts, or of the strange and horrible creatures that inhabit the world. How Laika contrived to produce all of this, I have no earthly idea, only that the labor must have been immense,and the result is apparent to all. Whatever faults it may have, Kubo is a gorgeous film, and those who go simply to drink in its richness will not be wasting their time.

It's always hard to criticize a movie that tells a simple tale, as this one does, because the sheer familiarity of a story is not a flaw, especially not in a children's movie, whose target audience will not be as jaded by a hundred thousand retellings of Joseph Campbell. In this case Kubo, a boy with the power to animate origami paper and produce living, moving figurines, lives with his mother by the sea and works as a storyteller in the local village, before the hero's journey inevitably whisks him away. This is the kind of simple story that is used as an excuse to provide other delights, such as visuals or memorable setpieces, one where the stakes and the direction are fairly obvious, and yet that's no slur. Pursued by a group of evil spirits, tasked with retrieving the magical artifacts once wielded by his warrior-father, protected by a group of magical creatures including a Japanese macaque with a distinctly martial bent, and a larger-than-man-sized beetle, it is a story of adventure and danger and family and lessons learned. Kubo himself, voiced by Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones' Rickon Stark), is a perfectly compelling protagonist, brave and kind and sly in his own way, and the movie's recurring theme of metaf-iction, drawn out through Kubo's own profession telling stories with inanimate objects brought to life, complements the main plot perfectly. The rest of the voice cast is provided by other stalwarts, including Charlize Theron, whose role as a swordfighting monkey is actually fairly badass for a G-rated kids movie, while the ever-reliable Ralph Fiennes gets to play an evil god (again). Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa , Rooney Mara, and George Takei also lend their voices to more minor roles, all doing a fine job. For those interested in nothing more than a quality children's film, Kubo has everything you are looking for.

Things Havoc disliked: I really hate to do this.

People accuse me on occasion of being contrary, of hating movies simply because they are popular, and while I won't deny that there is definitely a correlation between a movie receiving universal critical acclaim, and said movie being a piece of crap, I do not go out of my way to bash movies that are popular just to be different. I want movies to be good, that's why I do this in the first place, and when a movie comes out with a 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes, I still expect, despite the Leviathans and Under the Skins and Beasts of the Southern Wild, that I'm going to get something special from seeing it. And if I don't, then I am not going to sit here and blow smoke at everyone just to pretend that I have some kind of non-existent credibility. And so it is in the interests of honesty for my readers and myself that I report that there are two major problems with Kubo and the Two Strings. One of these problems is survivable. One of them is not.

The first problem is Matthew McConaughey. Anyone who's spent any time reading my reviews knows how big a fan I am of McConaughey ever since he stopped playing vapid action leads, but here he's a voice actor, and voice acting is not the same thing as regular acting and never will be. It's not that McConaughey is awful, it's that his voice, his cadence, his vocal presence is so strong that it knocks you right out of the movie you're watching. Some actors, no matter how good they are, have such a strong persona as actors that it's entirely impossible to picture them as anyone else once you hear their voice. Asking McConaughey to play a Samurai warrior (who is also a giant beetle), while giving him the sorts of snarky lines that he would get in a traditional McConaughey movie, and then expecting the audience to see anything but Matthew McConaughey wandering onto the set of a Japanese children's show, is like asking people to hear Nicholas Cage or Joe Pesci or Tommy Lee Jones and not instantly think of the iconography around Nicholas Cage, Joe Pesci, or Tommy Lee Jones. McConaughey is flat-out distracting, there's no other way to put it, and while that's certainly something that probably afflicts adults more than children, even absent the baggage, the introduction of McConaughey as McConaughey is totally anachronistic to the fantastical magical world that the filmmakers have laboriously created. The effect is rather like Robin Williams' performance in Fern Gully, a performance that, irrespective of the quality of the voice work or the pedigree of the actor, simply takes you out of the film every time you encounter it.

But distracting as McConaughey is, he's not a lethal blow to the film. Recasting him would have solved everything, after all. The biggest problem with Kubo and the Two Strings, and the one that cannot so easily be resolved isn't McConaughey. It's Laika.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie that wants to be a rousing adventure, a trip through mythological Japan complete with monsters, magic, swordfights, action, and all the good things that fun animated kids movies have nowadays. But it also wants to do all of those things purely with practical effects, miniatures and stop motion and the like, and unfortunately what Laika has discovered and inadvertently revealed to all of us is that these two goals are antithetical, because Laika just can't do it. You cannot make a full-speed action-adventure feature film using nothing but stop motion, not without taking sixteen years and $200,000,000 to do it, neither of which Laika can feasibly take. When one must re-arrange every frame of a 100+ minute film by hand, it means that every frame of animation takes longer to produce than it would being drawn on cell paper, let alone rendered on a computer. And because of this, with a limited budget of money and time, Laika has been forced to cut corners, in the time-honored method of budget-crunched animators everywhere. Action sequences are stilted and slow, lacking the explosive movement that we've come to expect from animated films nowadays. Scenes designed to generate energy grind to a halt so that minutes can be taken up with pace-shattering filler material, throwing off the balance of the entire movie and rendering several long sections flat boring to watch. To save frames, the animators even resort to the old anime trick of moving the background while the characters stay motionless, a staple of Saturday morning anime, unworthy of the feature film that it is used within. Even the plot is harnessed to push the required frame count down, tieing itself into knots to avoid having to show any more action than is absolutely necessary, and leading unavoidably to the conclusion that despite the gorgeous look and style of the film, this is a movie that should have been made by Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks. Laika is simply not up to the task of realizing it.

Final thoughts:  Kubo and the Two Strings has a universally-sterling reputation, and I do see why, but the film is not the masterpiece that it is being made out to be. I would never begrudge someone from enjoying themselves insofar as a movie is concerned, of course, nor do I wish to pretend that literally everyone else is obviously wrong and I am clearly right. But pacing is not an afterthought when one is crafting a story, and it is equally not a place one should cut corners just to make the movie come together. Laika's insistence that their methodology was the right one to bring this story to life is commendable, certainly, but also completely wrong-headed, as a brief credit sequence done with traditional animation proves more lively than the entire movie it follows. And while I hate to denigrate the tremendous work that a great many skilled professionals put into the movie, I cannot pretend that the result was the untrammeled success that I was promised. After all, if I did, then what praise would I have left for the next time Laika does pull it off?

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Comedy is hard.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...