Sunday, September 4, 2016

Review - Kubo and the Two Strings

EDITOR'S NOTE: Not a return to full reviews for me, I'm afraid. Just an exercise to shake some of the rust off. It'll be back to capsules for awards season movies.

In a bustling village square, in some unnamed era of pre-Imperial Japan, a boy wearing an eye-patch and a baggy samurai robe drops a pile of paper on the ground and strums a power chord on his shamisen. As though by instinct, the crowd turns, silences, and gathers 'round with barely-contained excitement.
“If you must blink, do it now,” instructs Kubo (for that is his name), literally commanding the attention of his audience.

As he plucks the strings and taps harmonic on his instrument, his paper springs to life, folding itself into intricate figurines that run, jump, fly and do pantomimed battle with each other, acting out the drama as Kubo narrates a tale of adventure and heroism for the delighted onlookers.
We are (shrewdly) given no explanation of this sorcery, and honestly, we're too bedazzled to care. Just like the throng of villagers rapt by Kubo's paper players, when we sit down to a Laika feature we are being treated to the most elaborate puppet show ever imaginable. Or at least until Laika – the stop-motion animation studio behind this thrilling illusion – imagines a way to make it more yet elaborate for their next trick.

Over the course of its first three films – Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls – Laika has defined itself as a vital alternative voice in the flooded American animation market: Tonally shifty between 'just left of sentimental' to 'flat-out creepy'; Character designs that lean closer to the grotesque than any of their doe-eyed CG contemporaries would dare; And stories seemingly built for children but underlain by mature, occasionally dark thematic foundations.

And yet for all their impressiveness these movies have seldom come together as a whole, held back by patchy or oddly-shaped scripts that leave one feeling not quite satisfied. Not so with CEO Travis Knight's directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings, which uses all the technical panache of its predecessors to finally prop up a more firmly developed narrative; One in which those stop-motion puppets actually grow as characters, and the emotions targeted by story's end are mostly earned.
Inspired by the tradition of classical samurai morality tales à la Kurosawa, while still accommodating the structural tidiness of the American story model, Kubo and the Two Strings is a hero's journey brimming with magic, adventure and danger.

You see, Kubo (Game of Thrones' Art Parkinson) never quite gets to the end of his origami rock opera, because the first hint of sundown sends him packing for the safety of the seaside cave where he lives and cares for his mother. She insists he mustn't linger out after dark lest he be discovered by his grandfather, the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who plucked out Kubo's left eye as a baby and aims to finish the job. How Kubo ever learned to master a tricky stringed instrument without depth perception is beyond me.

Inevitably the warning goes unheeded, though for the poignant reason of Kubo wishing to partake in Tōrō nagashi, the lantern festival, and commune with his late father. He is set upon by the Moon King's twin daughters (Rooney Mara), levitating witches costumed in black jingasa in eerie grinning Noh masks. They are by far more frightening and lethal than any of the larger, more fantastical monsters Kubo faces on his quest.
To defeat the Moon King he must travel afar seeking three pieces of legendary armour. Along the way he inherits the companionship and guidance of an acerbic snow monkey (Charlize Theron) and a buffoonish warrior-turned-beetle-man (Matthew McConaughey), whose comical bickering resembles many a parental squabble.

The world of Kubo feels complete, conjuring its internal mythology with confidence and ease. Every progression of the journey offers some new wonderment, be it an eye-popping creature or an intense action sequence or a gentle narrative twist. Even if the climatic showdown underwhelms by comparison to the stellar first two acts, co-writers Mark Haimes and Chris Butler still find an unexpected resolution that works.

Despite the mild hindrance of some unfortunate miscasting (chiefly McConaughey's anachronistic Texan drawl, though the whitewashing of all the principal roles is a disappointment), Kubo thrives on its Asian influences, waylaying any accusations of empty exoticism. Alluding to distinctly Eastern customs and philosophies, the screenplay speaks gracefully though directly to the power of storytelling, the strength we draw from family whether present or departed, and the importance of being able to truly see the humanity in a savage world; The film's preoccupation with ocular imagery is no accident.
And oh, such imagery! To suggest that Laika's seamless interplay of tactile creations and digital effects is any better here than in their previous three efforts might not be fair, but it bears repeating every time: These movies are stunners. What's it gonna take for the Academy's vfx branch to take animated innovations – especially of this rarefied ilk – seriously? Rare is the movie in this day and age that can make me wonder, “How did they do that?”
It deserves a Best Visual Effects nomination. Full stop.

More than that, the visual storytelling is on point from start to finish. Eschewing the saturated colour schemes of ParaNorman and Coraline for a more reigned-in palette evoking Japanese wood prints, the compositions are narratively astute, communicating the project's strong undercurrent of melancholy through the spectacle. An identical compliment can be payed to Dario Marianelli's score.

I've been grateful for Laika's existence since they burst onto the scene. Grateful for their insane commitment to such painstaking method, and grateful for their unapologetic willingness to touch on themes more complex than their big studio competition would dream. But this is their first product I've felt like championing; A huge step forward in terms of story, impact and payoff.

If you must blink, do it before the picture starts. You don't want to miss a single frame.

***1/2 out of ****

1 comment:

  1. If you want another great animated movie of 2016, check out The Little Prince, my current favourite this year. Though that might change after I see Kubo. Just wow. I cannot wait.

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