Kubo and the Two Strings

I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.

Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.

Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.

I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.

Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.

I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.

One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.

https://i1.wp.com/static.srcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/kubo-cover.jpg

I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.

A Mellow Submarine

If you are a fan of the tiny, little, obscure British band, The Beatles (occasionally you hear them mentioned today), or are a fan of bizarro animation—or even if you just like puns—then it is absolutely imperative that you view The Yellow Submarine (1968). With director Charles Dunning’s team’s incredibly lucid and inventive animation (inspired by the artistic styles of Heinz Edelmann) and some great songs from the legendary Beatles this super-mellow psychedelic trip of a film was brought to glorious, acid-dropping life.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river...

Picture yourself in a boat on a river…

The film follows Richard Lester‘s two previous live-action films, The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Like these films, Yellow Submarine would be a wild comedy with loads of silly Beatle antics, but this time it would be animated, rendering complete free range over the psychedelic tone and tundra. The Beatles themselves were not terribly keen initially with the idea of the film, so their speaking voices in the film were cast to other actors doing Beatles impressions (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, and Paul Angelis). Evidently, when the film was nearing completion the real Beatles saw the footage and loved it and thus agreed to appear as live action cameos at the finale. If the ringing endorsement from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr isn’t enough, then I don’t know what would be. The film features several fantastic songs including “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Nowhere Man,” “All Together Now,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Yellow Submarine,” and more.

Pepperland.

Pepperland.

Like many band-centric musicals, the plot takes a comfortable backseat to much of the music and mayhem, but the plot is still enjoyable enough on its own.

Peaceful Pepperland is under attack by the nasty Blue Meanies who have zero tolerance for anything but rampant negativity. They set strange monsters out into Pepperland and bean all of the citizens with big, green apples, transforming them into silent, blue statues. Fortunately, Old Fred, the sailor, gets away in the Yellow Submarine. Advised by the Mayor to get help, he sails through land, air, and sea until he discovers Ringo.

Ringo takes Old Fred to the Beatle house where he meets George, John, and Paul. Old Fred is struck by the foursome’s uncanny resemblance to the former protector’s of Pepperland: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Together they go on a quest to find Pepperland again and free it from the Blue Meanies. Naturally some singing is required for the trek as they sojourn across the Sea of Time to the Sea of Science to the Sea of Monsters to the Sea of Nothing to the Sea of Heads to the Sea of Holes to the Sea of Green. After “Eleanor Rigby” I’d say that some of my favorite songs are featured on their path through the seven seas. Once they arrive in Pepperland the Beatles must use the power of music and love to set the Pepperlanders free and bring happiness to the oh-so-blue Blue Meanies. If all you need is love then certainly we can all get along, right?

Sea of Monsters

Sea of Monsters

In a time when all violence, hate, and wars can be solved by flowers, long hair, and drugs, Yellow Submarine proved to be another megaphone expounding on the subject. It heralds a message that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The bad guys are never really bad, they just need to see what they’re missing in order to come around. Yellow Submarine proves you don’t need rigorous conflict to tell a fun story (just like David Byrne’s True Stories). Indeed, the ‘battle’ between The Beatles and the Blue Meanies’ minions is the least interesting part of the movie. The exciting bits come from their mind-altering explorations through the Seas and the songs they sing along the way. The film achieves a sort of ultra-relaxed mellow. The world is fantastical enough on its own so why fight? The film voices the generation’s creed better than most. This movie is what the hippie ideology was all about. Make love, not war…because war is unnecessary and evil and love permeates every aspect of peace, kindness, and understanding.

Sea of Heads

Sea of Heads

It’s a tough toss up as to who the real star of the movie is. Is it the music or the pictures? The animation morphs and contorts with such lushness and playful abandon that it dazzles the eye and tickles the funny bone and remains completely in step with the songs. Some of the songs are so wonderfully hypnotic, delirious, and playful that, perhaps, without them the pictures would feel incomplete. The perfect marriage of music to picture is nothing short of amazing. Yellow Submarine is like a pop version of Disney’s Fantasia. The colors and shapes are completely free and wild and it might prove difficult to refrain from joining in and singing some of the classic tunes. “It’s all in the mind,” so the recurring line goes.

Stand off.

Stand off.

People have said that this movie is just about drugs, specifically LSD. I think this is unfair, for although there is logic behind the assumption considering the era and source of much of the material, I submit that it is more a celebration of the imagination and creativity (which some might argue is the purpose of LSD, but it would still merely be the train rather than the destination). You don’t need drugs to see the magic. It’s already there. Lewis Carroll, M. C. Escher, and Terry Gilliam didn’t need it. Perhaps the filmmakers of Yellow Submarine were simply reveling in the fact that animation could do anything. The movie is more about the magic of a perfect world where everything is peaceful, musical, and mellow.

Yellow Submarine is brisk, funny, and full of wonder. A good movie takes you places and Yellow Submarine definitely does that. It’s a highly imaginative and enjoyable experience. It’s weird, wild stuff and it won’t be for everybody, but if you like the message, the incredible artwork, or great Beatles songs then check it out. (On a personal note, I do wish “Strawberry Fields” was in this movie). Perhaps the hippie lifestyle isn’t as prevalent as it was in the 1960s when this film came out, but then perhaps there are certain messages that we can all get behind no matter what part of the century we’re from.

Heroes.

Heroes.

Make love, not war. All you need is love. It’s all in the mind.

Thank goodness the CG motion-capture Disney-Zemeckis remake was cancelled.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May, 18, 2010