Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Kubo and the Two Strings" (2016)

a film review by CatsMando


    If I were asked what would be my top three companies-not in terms of my personal fave, but in terms of honest-to-goodness craftsmanship-levels in animated feature films-easy, it's Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and Laika. These are the big name studios that actually puts out real art-forms. A combination of fresh perspective as evidenced through their stories, and years of technical masterwork as shown through the quality of execution. It's not an always case, mind you, all three of them have their  pieces of passing works. But more often they get to deliver works that are just visually draw-dropping, emotionally resonant, thematically solid, and overall inspiring.

    I state this case here because really, Laika, for me, often felt overlooked. Their unwavering stance in keeping this particular form of animation is commendable enough. But to see them actually further that in taking the practice to new heights(both on thematic and technical level) is just...wow. Really, wow. So I'm both incredibly pleased and pleasantly surprised to discover that this particular film is actually about that. Chasing the essence of entertainment, pinpointing the nature and the value of story-telling.

    The surface storyline is actually pretty basic. It's the hero's journey; introduction of protagonist, protagonist gains motivation to adventure through loss, adventure to self transformation ensues, allies and important artifacts gained along the way, transformation arrived just in time to face the antagonist. Again, basic stuff if covering its base premise. So what's the ingenuity of it, the point where I'd actually begin to love the film? Well, the great point about it is that it has a layer, a theme that flows through the base narrative in a very introspective manner. See, the story is actually driven by the essence of discovering and maintaining a story. As the main, overarching drive of the main protagonist himself is the quest to find and preserve his.

    Kubo is introduced to us catering to his mother who, after an unfortunate concussion during an escape, is struggling in recollecting her memories, in remembering herself. They lived in isolation to a cave in a mountaintop, but there's a town below and that's where Kubo try to make a living. So how does he make a living? By telling a story about some glorious hero who must venture forth and claim three magical gears to fight a great enemy. Told with the help of some self-folding magical papers and his musical instrument, the story becomes downright mesmerizing to the townsfolk, which is pretty good for Kubo because it seems he often stops the story short, leaving the townsfolk frustrated. But such style of storytelling is not Kubo's intent, as later shown the two reasons. First is, the story he's telling is actually told to him by his mother. He can't finish the story because she can't finish hers. Also, "home before dark" is not just an advice but an order. If there's something that her mother will never lose, it's her will to protect her child.

    When she can get her thoughts together, she tells the same story of a hero who collected three items and fought a villain, the difference is that the hero is actually Kubo's father, while the villain is her father. Her father is called the moon king, an immortal who's now chasing after Kubo, or more specifically, his eye(he already lost one). As evidenced by the lack of presence of the father, as much as she struggles to recollect the details, for us the story, their story, is pretty much figured out. So now, it's up to her to protect Kubo from being taken away. Through those minor changes, the same basic story is suddenly re-contextualized. From some man who quested for glory, to a father who fought to protect his family.

    All's well, until one day, Kubo has been told by one of the villagers about some festivities that occurs during the night, more specifically, a ritual that could apparently give way to them to communicate through passed loved ones. Kubo go forth and joined the festival and the ritual which only has proved fruitless, night arrived, the moon shone ominously, two malevolent figures appeared and attempted to take Kubo away. Their approach interrupted by Kubo's mother. Outnumbered and overpowered, she uses what's left of her power to take Kubo far away from the village, leaving herself to fend, as revealed, her sisters into chasing her child.

    Kubo then woke up facing a talking monkey. It is quickly known that she's actually the little wooden charm Kubo's holding early in the film. With her(the monkey) help, Kubo's quest to find the three items, and to fight his grandfather, the Moon King, begins.

    Now yes, the film's story continues and wraps up from there in a pretty predictable manner. But still, I will not go further. The film has its twists and turns and moments and further re-contextualization to the narrative, and I'm not going to spoil that here. All I can say is, the film is thematically and structurally solid. It's point about telling stories and finding value in keeping memories alive integrates very well into the film.

    And those point has additional reinforcement on the fact that it reverberates on Laika's ideal as well. Their craft, which is stop-motion animation, is unbelievably top notch. The animations are smooth, the character works are very solid. It's truly mind-blowing every time you realized this was literally hand-made. Obviously, some light and particle effects are CGI. But everything else, the living characters, the moving set, are not. As I said, that really reinforces the message about the respect in storytelling. Just like how Kubo's simple tale becomes engrossing and thoroughly entertaining because of his talent in delivering it in such magical manner, same could be said in this film and on the studio that made it. In showing great weight and value to the tales through the medium, and giving great care and respect to the medium it is made in.

    Making this kind of lasting works are done through sheer talent, effort, discipline, and again i really can't stress this term enough, respect to the work. I think what Laika's trying to state here is that, it's time to celebrate that, with a rock-solid animated family-adventure movie.

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