Friday 9 September 2016

Kubo And The Two Strings (2016) - Movie Review

I find it a tad strange that I would say the following as any kind of positive, but animation studio Laika is basically the hipster haven for animation junkies of late. I say this for two key reasons. The first one being rather obvious, in that their focus on stop-motion animation makes them a healthy alternative to the largely-CGI movie scene when it comes to family-friendly entertainment. The second one is that they stand out alongside industry titans Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks as somewhat of a lesser-known third-party alternative, giving film geeks such as myself an opportunity to introduce others to quality films that they might have otherwise missed.

Prior to this, Laika has released three feature films in their lifetime but they have managed to carry an astounding level of quality control between them. From the surreal horror film Coraline to the poignant love letter to all things considered beyond the norm with Paranorman to the screwball journey of personal belonging with The Boxtrolls, you’re almost guaranteed quality when it comes to this studio. With all that in mind, you better friggin’ believe that I was hyped for today’s film knowing who was behind it. But how does it actually hold up?

The plot: Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a busker in ancient Japan who makes money by telling fantastical stories of his father, the mighty samurai Hanzo. However, when his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughters the evil Sisters (Rooney Mara) come after him for his remaining eye, it’s up to him and his companions Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to find the three pieces of a mystical suit of armour that will give Kubo the power to defeat the Moon King and save his village.

It is at this point, possibly more so than any other even given its prevalence, that I seriously wish I caught up with my Game Of Thrones before sitting down to watch this film. I say that because, without that, the only prior experience I have of Art Parkinson’s work is with Dracula Untold and San Andreas… not the best legacy, even for a kid this young. That said, though, he does really well as our hero, carrying the right quality in his voice that fits the adventurous storyteller he’s been given. Theron has a bit of fun as Monkey, but mainly she serves as the matronly core of the film, managing to convey so much despite how little dialogue she gets in certain scenes early on. McConaughey, likewise, is very enjoyable as the doofy but lionhearted Beetle, and him combined with Theron and Parkinson probably makes for one of the best triple acts I’ve seen in any film this year. Fiennes, as any millennial will tell you at great length, has plenty of experience playing villains, but his vocal mannerisms combined with the character make for one of the more disarmingly sympathetic antagonists he’s portrayed. Rooney Mara as the evil Sisters is genuinely creepy and unsettling, Brenda Vaccaro is a warming presence to begin with as the elderly Kameyo, and George Takei is also in this movie. You can tell that by how they just had to sneak in his catchphrase.

Much like with Pixar, I feel like I’m just stating the obvious when it comes to Laika’s animation chops. But the fact still remains: This film is stunning in its visuals. Their pedigree for stop-motion is met here, with some truly breath-taking landscapes, not to mention some surprisingly lively action scenes. I say "surprising" because, in contrast to the bonkers near-hyperactivity of their last effort The Boxtrolls, this is an extremely serene film. The main reason why I am completely ignoring any credence to the idea of "Mostly white actors portraying Japanese people = racist" is because these filmmakers definitely understand the idea of showing respect to their methods of storytelling.

I briefly touched on this back with AN, and here is where we get to see the more positive side of that idea: It takes its time, inducing an almost meditative state with how it lets the audience drink in every pixel on the screen, but it never enters the realms of dull. If anything, based solely on the animation, this might be one of the most engaging family films I’m expecting to see for a long time. However, this actually manages to push the envelope in terms of what Laika is capable, as a lot of the animation focuses less on the stop-motion characters and more on paper, leaves and other things that usually serve as a test to make sure animators know what they’re doing. The way this film uses these seemingly lifeless elements, especially whenever characters are telling stories, is spellbinding in how good it is. Even as someone who holds up Laika to a certain lofty standard, I am genuinely impressed that they are capable of something like this.

I sure hope you’re in the mood for feels, because it never bleeding stops with this movie. The story in it of itself isn’t anything too spectacular, basically just a fetch quest that would be rather fitting for some sort of video game adaptation, and this isn’t helped by how some of the plot elements are pretty dang obvious. However, that isn’t what this film is aiming for. I’d usually say the phrase “this film wants you to feel, not think” as an insult for more poncy bits of film fluff, but I bring it up here with utter sincerity and gratitude. The very first words spoken in this film are “If you must blink, do it now”, and while that could easily be attributed to the visual quality of the production and how no-one in their right mind would want to miss any of it, it also works in context to the characters. This film isn’t trying to pull the wool over your eyes; in fact, it even takes time out to remark on how obvious its own twists are. Instead, this film wants to make you feel what the characters are feeling, especially Kubo.

The melancholy is plentiful, as are the more humourous moments thanks to Beetle and Kameyo, and what makes this work so damn well is that it never shies away from any of it. If it’s depressing, it doesn’t cop out and try and make things more palatable; instead, it treats its audience with enough respect to be able to take what is happening on screen. It also helps that it never overreaches for any of the more potent emotions either, as everything that is experienced is well and truly deserved, both by the people on screen and the people who are watching them. Back when I reviewed Lights Out, I missed a trick by saying that I’d seen porn deal with the concept of depression more sensibly than they did. You know, the same weird comparison I made last year? Well, thank God for this film because it allows me to make the same point without reaching for the smutty extreme. This film, about a boy trying to come to terms with his family history next to a monkey and a giant beetle, treats darker concepts like death, sadness and regret in a more adult fashion than Lights Out could ever manage.

On top of showing a new benchmark in terms of what they are capable of visually, Laika also managed to up the stakes conceptually as well and it is here where it finally clicked in about why I love this company as much as I do. More so than anything else, these people are dedicated to the art of storytelling; no compromises, no interference, just straight-up narrative brilliance. And it is here more so than in any other film they’ve released that that shows as, through the emphasis on the act of storytelling, we get a crystal-clear image of just why these stories are important. Turmoil and triumph both make up the patchwork of any person’s life. That life, in time, becomes a story. That story becomes a memory. That memory becomes one of many that end up shaping a person and how they deal with turmoil and triumph, and so the cycle begins again. Through song, speech, visuals or all of the above, stories have a way of getting into our minds and shaping us in some small way.

I brought up this film carrying on with certain Japanese traditions, and I say that mainly because the subtext here reminds me a lot of an anime I watched a while back called Kino’s Journey, an excellent series that also dealt with the idea of the passing on of knowledge and wisdom through stories. It is with all this, shown through the beautiful manipulation of paper, leaves and smoke, that the sheer level of respect this company has for its audience is made clear. They not only know that their audience is intelligent enough to accept their tales, but that the audience itself is necessary in order for their tales to work at all. In essence, this film took the existential musings about animation from the epilogue of The Boxtrolls and built on it to create a narrative that, among other things, shows the importance of those on the other side of the screen when it comes to telling stories. I’ve seen films show respect to the audience before, but never to this degree.

All in all, this is the best film that Laika has produced yet, and bear in mind that their first effort Coraline is one of my all-time favourite films. The acting is fantastic, the animation brings the studio’s abilities to new heights, the writing is almost exhaustively emotional while showing a deep and learned understanding of the medium of storytelling beyond human years, and the music… yeah, I don’t think the song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has ever been used to better effect or been more accurate a description as it is here. It takes something truly amazing to take my somewhat overenthusiastic expectations, and manage to exceed them while squeezing my heart for all it’s worth in the process.

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