We have just celebrated the 2nd Anniversary of the Axia Film Society and we are already having a first. This is the first time I have reviewed a stop motion animated film, I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get round to doing it. Stop motion animation is an art form that was very popular back in the day with such hits as The Wallace and Gromit movies and The Nightmare Before Christmas but they have sort of fallen into decline in recent memory. I think this is largely down to the fact that Toy Story was such a success. It proved that with computer effects, you could do a lot with a lot more ease and it also allowed for a lot more fluidity in the movement of the characters. That’s not to say that stop motion died off, far from it but as computer technology got better and you could produce more computer generated 3D films with more ease and in less time, stop motion had less of a call for it and it is often reserved for 1 film a year, usually done by Aardman Animation who are well known for producing the Wallace and Gromit movies and the relatively recent The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists which I highly recommend picking up, or they come from today’s studio Laica who really do seem to put a lot of effort into their stop motion films. Plus, getting a stop motion film done now almost guarantees you an Oscar nomination, so some studios still find it attractive to try and go for that one stop motion animated film, which would explain why The Box Trolls got a nomination for Best Animated Feature in the same year that The Lego movie didn’t! Seriously the only reason I think that film got an Oscar nomination over The Lego Movie is because it is stop motion, it is so mediocre in any other light. Laica have produced some really good stop motion films in the past, I particularly liked ParaNorman which is one of the most cleverly written family films of the decade so far. I was very pleased to find out that one of the screen play writers of this film was Chris Butler, who wrote the screen play for ParaNorman.
The film itself has been directed by Travis Knight who has worked on the animation department of several stop motion animation films including ParaNorman and The Box Trolls and also acted as a producer for both of those films, though this is his directorial debut. It is very clear from cast interviews that I have seen that there has clearly been a lot of effort put into the film, the film took 5 years to be animated because there was a lot of ambition behind the project. Personally I love the title and the trailers and the posters got me excited for it because it look like it would hark back to a lot of Anime influence and it reminded me a lot of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Princess Mononoke. Talking about it is all well and good, does Kubo and the Two Strings live up to its hype or has its ambition been its downfall?
As usual, quick plot synopsis. Kubo (played by Art Parkinson) has a tremendous skill for storytelling and magic, entraining his home village with his magic origami performances whilse also taking care of his mother keeping ever vigilant in order to hide from his grandfather the Moon King (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his 2 Aunts (both played by Rooney Mara), that is until Kubo stays out late one day trying to communicate with his father’s spirit. He is spotted by the sisters and his mother uses her magic to send him away, telling him the only way to defend himself is to get his father’s armour and sword, she also brings to life his Monkey toy (played by Charlize Theron), whose job is to protect him and get him to the Armour as fast as possible. They are later joined by a Samurai Beetle (played by Matthew McConaughey). Will Kubo’s quest be successful and what will it reveal about himself and his family?
Ok I am going to break tradition a little bit and instead of talking about the plot first, I am going to talk about the presentation, because really it is the star of the movie. The presentation of Kubo is unbelievable, the animation is stunning, this isn’t just one of the best looking animated films in a long while, this is one of the best looking stop animation films ever. As I mentioned the creative team spent 5 years animating this and it is very clear they put love, care and attention into every single frame. The backgrounds look gorgeous, there has clearly been some green screen effects put in place to make up for it but they come off seamlessly and as a result the animation makes the world feel fully developed. The movement in the characters is so fluid and brilliant, especially for the big fight scenes, which in stop motion, are incredibly difficult to do. The creators are clearly very proud of their work to such an extent they actually show during the credits the process of animating one of the key scenes of the film. The set pieces are all exciting and action packed as a result and the characters are designed brilliantly. This film just looks gorgeous and it’s especially amazing considering that large portions of the movie are set at night, which is often considered a bad decision to make in an animated film because it is often more difficult to animate. The film’s music score is also fantastic. As to be expected it is rather based on Japanese instruments and music especially considering a large majority of the film is based on Japanese mythology and the designs reflect that brilliantly. It will be especially evident to anyone who has been to rural and ancient parts of Japan. The film is just gorgeous to look at and I adored watching it for that reason.
I would also really recommend you stick around for the credits. Rather like the Kung Fu Panda movies there is some really great animation used in the credits as well as an excellent version of The Beatles song While My Guitar Gently Weeps covered by Regina Spektor. It actually rather annoyed me that people left before the credits had finished (all 6 other people, seriously Nine Lives had a bigger audience that’s just wrong). However, all of this would mean nothing if Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t have a really great story.
Fortunately, it really does. Kubo and the Two Strings tackles several themes of family, maturity, grief as well as several elements that I won’t go into for fear of spoiling the plot. This is a very different animated film to a lot of what is on the market. It treats its audience with a real sense of intelligence, there is a very interesting relationship between Kubo and his mother at the beginning of the film which I can’t recall seeing in an animated film, well from the Western world at least. There is also a very interesting relationship between Kubo, Monkey and Beetle which really makes the film. Kubo loses his family and he makes a new family with these two and their connection is what really sells the film’s plot. It’s just one of the great features about the film though. If there is one thing which is really great it’s the main character, Kubo is just a normal kid under very difficult circumstances. He is not a Mary Sue character, and he is never so childish that you don’t root for him. He is actually a very likeable character and he has an excellent back story. He does a cool job as a busker using his magic guitar to tell stories hence why the two strings is in the title, he plays a two stringed guitar that makes Origami come to life.
The film also creates some threatening villains. I like them. The villains do feel a threat to the main heroes along with the monsters that they face which are all brilliantly realized with brilliant design and execution. The quest, whilst a bit stereotypical feels like the classis Samurai film, the journey of one’s discovery. The film actually went in several directions that I wasn’t expecting and it has incredibly mature themes and it also has the genius to have the show don’t tell rule, in fact there are several really quiet moments in the film which is something that I absolutely loved, because if you have watched as many kids films as I have where the characters do not shut up for 5 seconds, you will seriously appreciate any film that realizes it doesn’t have to have its characters constantly talking and doing stuff.
There are also some tear jerking scenes in this film. It is very heartfelt and it only really works because you become invested in the characters which are all brilliantly realized. The narrative feels like they really trust their audience enough to not have to explain every single tiny detail and they let it flow naturally and speak for itself.
I will say though, it’s not perfect. I may have said that the villains feel threatening, but I also don’t quite get their motivation entirely, though it does have an interesting pay off that I wasn’t expecting in the climax, which by the way was fantastic. This film has an occasional need to put in a lot of plot conveniences, you know, something happens just because and the characters all seem to be in the right place. There are also a couple of plot twists that I didn’t see coming, but there was one that I really did see coming and I think most people will see it down the line. Honestly though those are real nit picks the plot is actually good especially for the level that a lot of family films have been playing at recently and I will be honest with you, the narrative kept me engaged. It’s a really good story and I think the story developers and the screen writers should get a pat on the back for it. I don’t want to talk too much about it because I think it’s best to just go in and experience it.
As for the performances, they are pretty damn good and some of them are genuinely unrecognizable, most notably Ralph Fiennes is particularly subtle in his performance as the Moon King and Rooney Mara is so against type, I seriously couldn’t believe it was her. Art Parkinson makes an excellent lead, Charlize Theron is great as usual, cast in a role that really suits her. Matthew McConaughey seems like he is having real fun in this film. Even some of the minor supporting roles are pretty good especially Brenda Vaccaro and despite the fact that George Takei is featured on a lot of the advertising his role is borderline cameo, he is not largely featured in the film, he is good though when he is on screen.
What more can I say, Kubo and the Two Strings is fantastic. It’s animated beautifully, the music score is fantastic, the characters are great, the narrative is really good and the script works well and manages to treat its audience with maturity and respect and gives us a very memorable plot. It does suffer from a couple of plot conveniences and the villains motivations could have been explained a bit better but it wasn’t enough to diminish the film for me. This one was such a joy to watch and I highly recommend you go out and see it.
I saw the film in 3D and I think it’s a bit of a mixed bag in that format and I wouldn’t assume it is essential, apart from a couple of scenes that are clearly shot with the 3D in mind, but honestly you can take it or leave it. If you have kids, take them to see it, it is an excellent film and judging by the trailers for the upcoming family films, this is the best one you will see for a while. This honestly has the potential to go down as one of the best stop motion films ever, right up there with ParaNorman and The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.
Well with that out of the way, I will talk about the films I saw between this and Purge: Election Year. Well, I only have one this week and it’s Sausage Party.
Oh Sausage Party, you really were one of the big disappointments of this year. I went in to this film game for a laugh. I wanted this to be the R rated comedy that I would laugh out loud at every single joke and I didn’t. It’s a very typical Seth Rogan comedy which, if you read my review of Bad Neighbour’s 2, you already know my opinion on them. Some of the jokes do hit bullseye and are fantastic but a lot of them miss and I do thinks it’s too vulgar for its own good and then it weirdly tries to have a little extra meaning by having the whole thing have a commentary on the nature of religion and how it affects people. Guys I have come in to a film to see a foul mouthed and sausage If I wanted political commentary about society I would go and watch a Jonathon Pie video on YouTube. By no means bad and I did kind of enjoy the film for large parts, but it was not as good as I was expecting it to be. Bar a really un-recognisable performance from Edward Norton as Sammy Bagel Jr, yes I didn’t really like the pun either! Also incidentally, I will never be able to eat Hot Dogs the same again! That’s all down to that ending!!!
“So that’s it for another week. If you have an opinion on Kubo and the Two Strings or Sausage Party then please leave a comment in the comments section below.”
Next week I will be at the Edinburgh Conference, but I will go and see a film, so on 23 September I will be posting my review on the sequel (which no one asked for, but we have anyway) to Blair Witch.
Thanks for reading my review, I hoped you enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it and if you must blink, do it now, p.s. you will actually get that if you saw the movie!
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