Thursday, September 15, 2016

If You Must Blink, Do It Now: Kubo and the Two Strings


The publicity for Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t hook me because my eyes deceived me; I saw the trailer and thought the strangely-stylized CGI visuals looked janky and oddly angular, and said no thanks. It wasn’t until the film came out and I heard that it had been made by LAIKA, purveyors of stop-motion magic like Coraline and Paranorman, that I suddenly became interested. That wasn’t odd-looking CG I had seen, it was beautiful stop-motion animation! I was amazed at how starkly different my reaction was to the film’s look once I was processing it through the correct lens – to say nothing of how amazed I was by the craft and power of the final product.

Something I admire greatly about Kubo, among its many admirable qualities, is its unabashed approach to providing challenging content in a children’s movie context. This beautiful film, set in a magical feudal Japan, deals with death, mental illness, abandonment, and more – not to mention throwing the precocious Kubo (Art Parkinson), our protagonist (and expert shamisen player with emerging magical powers to boot), into many situations that are terrifying on a level I haven’t seen since the animated films of the late 80s and early 90s like The Secret of Nimh or The Land Before Time. Kubo isn’t afraid to give kids a scare, and to confront them with hard truths and terrible realities, and for that I think it deserves all the praise we can give. That’s not to say it’s a horror film, or something that families should avoid showing their children. Far from it. It uses this challenging content as a way to show kids the respect they deserve; it teaches that they too can be smart and brave, like Kubo, and stand tall in the face of a cruel fate. It’s a deeply sensitive film, and these tricky elements are handled with grace.

This sensitivity is strongly reinforced by the film’s stop-motion animation, which is not done justice by words like “painstaking” and “intricate” and “gorgeous”. As someone who always has a moment to make a snarky comment about the use of CGI over practical effects (even when they’re used well), I cannot overstate how much this animation style gave emotional power and immediacy to Kubo’s story. The characters – like the little twig of a boy that is Kubo himself, his enchanted macaque protector, Monkey (Charlize Theron), or their eager companion, the cursed ronin named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) – feel real and tactile within the frame because they literally are. The difference in impact between this and a purely computer-generated film is hard to describe – you need to see it in motion to understand its presence. And to describe the mechanical effect of the animation is to neglect Kubo’s painterly art design, which presents the kind of stunning backdrops and vistas for which Pixar is often praised, and imbues its characters with both a strong sense of personality and a fascinating glimpse into real Japanese tradition and history. Visually, it’s a simply dazzling film.

Kubo and the Two Strings features the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, and Charlize Theron (as Monkey).

Kubo’s story, which deals with Kubo setting off on a quest for three golden artifacts (“the Helmet Invulnerable! The Armor Impenetrable! The Sword Unbreakable!”) in order to thwart his evil grandfather, The Moon King (who stole Kubo’s left eye and is eager to claim the other), and rescue his mother’s spirit, is well-told, emotional, and incorporates all that sophisticated material I've already mentioned in natural and organic ways. While some of the structure is a bit off – I didn’t feel that enough setup was provided for the villains, and I saw the twist ending coming about fifty miles away – those issues are offset by the strength of the cast, who turn in wonderfully expressive performances. McConaughey in particular is great, reining in his natural drawl and finding a mischievous, scatterbrained hero in the strange Beetle. The film’s setpieces are memorable and exciting too, like the massive possessed skeleton demon with swords poking out from his skull like hair (and of whom I make special mention because, like many small elements in films nowadays, was portrayed using visual language that’s common in video games – yet another example of further cross-pollination between my two favourite mediums that’s becoming more and more noticeable).

My one major issue with the film, apart from quibbles about the story structure which don’t amount to much, is the weird dissonance in its racial representation. Kubo’s representation of a mystical feudal Japan is a rare choice of setting, and one that I find endlessly fascinating, but the unique opportunities that setting brings for Asian actors and filmmakers are ones LAIKA doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring. The three main characters, all Japanese, are voiced by white actors, as are the villains. (A few small roles are given over to people like the great Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and, of course, George Takei – who even squeaks an “oh my” in there at one point – but these Asian icons feel like a minority within the cast.) I’m not accusing LAIKA of the kind of whitewashing that has made this a hot-button issue – their portrayal of Japanese history and culture is sensitive and smart – but it seems odd that if they were going to commit to Kubo’s setting and style, which they do with gusto, they would leave so many capable Asian artists waiting in the wings in favour of bankable Hollywood names. If we want these sorts of films to get the wide releases they deserve, then something’s gotta give, I suppose. It just makes me sad – where was Up’s Jordan Nagai when they were casting Kubo? Where were great character actors like Will Yun Lee and Hiroyuki Sanada when the call went out for Beetle? Not to say Theron didn’t do a great job as Monkey, because she did, but I’m here to tell you that Hannibal’s Tao Okamoto would have killed that role. I blame Hollywood politics.

But, for all that, Kubo was a delightful and uplifting experience. It told an enchanting, exciting story with likeable and interesting characters who underwent significant transformation (sometimes literally), and did so with visuals that are unmatched in their beauty, craft, and heightened realism. It employs a cast who, if not chosen for maximum representation, still perform with energy and subtlety. And best of all, it dares to treat its audience – especially the younger people there – with respect. It’s no less than a triumph in the field of animated film. (And it has one of the best covers I’ve ever heard of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, so that’s going for it too.)

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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