A Review of Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings: A Timeless Tale Told in Wondrous Stop-Motion

Film: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes (screenplay and story), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story)
Primary Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro
US Release Date: 19 August 2016

Young Kubo (Parkinson) lives alone with his mother in a cave on the edge of the sea. Every morning, he gets his mother out of bed and makes her breakfast before travelling to a nearby village where he spends the day telling stories. Aided by a magical instrument and plenty of origami paper, Kubo captivates the crowd completely from morning to sunset.

At his mother’s behest, Kubo never stays out after dark—until he does. At which point, he is caught up in an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery, tragedy, and love. Along the way, Kubo is guided by a protective monkey (Theron) and a man cursed to have the form of a beetle (McConaughey). With Monkey and Beetle’s help, Kubo discovers abilities he never knew he had while also learning the truth about his family’s history.

The tale told by Kubo and the Two Strings (Kubo) is one that’s been told a thousand times, but its immersive visuals paired with a deft-hand for storytelling both set the film apart.

Kubo is that rare family film that doesn’t have a whiff of laziness about it. In Knight and Laika’s hands, even talking animals—a tired imperative of animation—manage to feel fresh. The film is brimming with substance and style alike, and it’s clear that genuine care, thought, and heart were all involved in its creation. Though it possesses emotional weight, Kubo isn’t heavy, and it certainly isn’t flat. Instead, the film passes through the dark of the theater like an enchanted breeze. And even if the script isn’t perfect, the film remains so lovely and mesmerizing that it doesn’t really matter.

Visually speaking, Kubo is one of best animated films I’ve seen. It may even become a personal favorite. Since I won’t know what it’s like to grow up with Kubo the way that I did with so many Disney films, it may never affect me as deeply some of them did, but I still appreciate the great deal of work, animation, heart, and artistry that it took to make it.

There is something pleasantly strange about stop-motion, and Kubo embraces this wholeheartedly. Used as it is in the film, stop-motion evokes the uncanny while imbuing the movie with a fantastical, dreamlike quality. Visually, the world of Kubo is the world of imagination—it may take its root in reality, but it is another place entirely, and for all its otherworldliness, it attracts far more than it repels. The animation in the film is incredibly textured. It has depth. In effect, the art is as much a character as Kubo or anyone else. The smooth, flawless surfaces that dominate the industry are not to be found here. Instead, Laika presents expertly executed imperfection for audiences to get lost in, and the film is overflowing with life as a result.

Kubo also exhibits its daring and its singular identity in its narrative, albeit with less intensity and abandon. The film’s tale is timeless; it is at once pleasantly unique and totally familiar. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, and, as such, it operates within an established set of parameters. And yet, it never lets such limits stifle its creativity or sense of wonder. Importantly, Kubo also possesses enough courage not to over-explain its narrative for effect. More than other family films, it allows its characters, their journey, and its images to speak for themselves, and it doesn’t dumb itself down more than necessary. In short, Kubo balances its creative daring with enough restraint that adult audiences should have no problem falling under its spell.

For the most part, the film’s voice cast works to support Knight’s overall vision. Art Parkinson’s voice is appropriately small and earnest. Rooney Mara is also quite memorable as two of the film’s villains (known collectively as, “The Sisters”), and her cold, measured tones make for some of the most frightening moments. Ralph Fiennes is also good (and appropriately intimidating) as the Moon King, although his performance won’t surprise anyone whose heard any of his other voice work.

Though the film’s cast is strong overall, McConaughey does throw Kubo’s tone off balance from time to time. His character, Beetle, is often used for comic relief, but the jokes and McConaughey’s particular sound don’t always mesh with the rest of the film. There is something unrefined about his presence; and had his character been reworked, the film may have been much better for it.

In other ways, the film would have also been improved by a voice cast in which Asian actors weren’t relegated to only the smallest roles. But then, how would they have used McConaughey’s name to get people in the door?

Though I watched plenty of animation as a child, nearly all of it came from Nickelodeon and Disney (the most notable exception being Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoons). As an adult, I only see an animated film in theaters once or twice a year, and those films also originate from a limited number of places. I didn’t see my fist Aardman movie until Shaun the Sheep, and the most recent Dreamworks film that I remember watching is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (which came out in 2002, for any who’s counting). My knowledge of animation-like most things—is a bit more limited than I would like. As of today, Kubo and the Two Strings is the only Laika film that I’ve seen, but it certainly won’t be my last. I was more than impressed by the film, and I’m incredibly eager to see what this inventive, Oregon-based studio does next.

Until Next Time
I actually saw Kubo the weekend that it came out, but life delayed my review a bit. Regardless of how much I enjoyed it, the film has the distinction of being the first—and currently, the only—movie I’ve paid to see here in LA (which is just as meaningless as it sounds, but there you have it).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you’ve seen the film, feel free to share your thoughts on it by posting a comment below (comments are moderated, so don’t fret if you what you post doesn’t appear immediately).

If you’d like to keep up with me in between posts, you can easily follow me on twitter and letterboxd.

A Review of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!: Movies, and Christ, and Communists, Oh My!

Hail, Caesar! Movie Review Coen Brothers
Film: Hail, Caesar!
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Primary Cast: Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, George Clooney, Michael Gambon (narrator), Ralph Fiennes, Heather Goldenhersh, Max Baker, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill
US Release Date: 5 February 2016

Hail, Caesar! is set in the 1950s, and the events that it depicts take place in just over a day. Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer for Capitol Pictures; though his official title is “Head of Physical Production,” Mannix spends most of his time controlling and preventing scandals pertaining to the studio’s actors. The most famous of these actors is Baird Whitlock (Clooney), who is starring in Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, which is Capitol Picture’s most expensive film for the year. On one especially eventful day at the studio, Whitlock mysteriously disappears from the set after being kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters.

Mannix spends most of the following 24 hours trying to keep Whitlock’s disappearance under wraps. Much of his attention and energy is also spent doing all that it takes to keep the movie machine that is Capitol Pictures running as smoothly as possible. Over the course of the film, he tries to get Whitlock back, meets with religious authorities, dodges journalists (Swinton), tries to find a husband for actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), pacifies director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes), fields questions from his secretary (Goldenhersh), encourages actor Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), tries to quit smoking, goes to confession twice, and much more. Though his faith is tested—by a devil in the form of a Lockheed Martin contractor—Mannix is devoted to his job, and he works so tirelessly that it’s unclear if he ever sleeps at all.

The latest film from the fabled Coen Brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a flawed, but brilliant comedy that simultaneously ridicules and pays homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. With its infectious energy, its stellar cast, its clever writing, and its off-beat sense of humor, the film possesses a potential for sheer entertainment that’s nearly off the charts. Though Hail, Caesar! is packed with too many cameos and has so many ideas that it often appears unfocused, it should still appeal to anyone who loves the Coens as well as to most who love movies. And while all of its parts might not come neatly together in the end, the film still provides a ride that is thrilling, unique, and lots of fun.  

Hail, Caesar! is an exhilarating and incredibly amusing film. It’s also a mixed bag. Not only does the film apply its comedy to film noir, historical epics, westerns, musicals, and more, but it also tells a tale that weaves religion and faith in with movies and (to a lesser extent) with political ideas as well. At the same time, Hail, Caesar! also throws so many characters and comedic moments at its audiences, that they may find their heads spinning; in giving viewers a sense of just how chaotic the life of a Hollywood fixer could be, Hail, Caesar! risks overwhelming viewers with its variety of characters and with the large number of settings, moods, and problems that accompany them. On top of all that, this fast-paced and perfectly silly film is also deeper—and even a shade darker—than its multitude of jokes might indicate (it’s not nearly as bleak as other Coen films, but Hail, Caesar! isn’t quite as chipper as the grin on Channing Tatum’s face either).

This is all to say that Hail, Caesar! is not interested in settling into a predictable pattern or in allowing viewers to relax and get comfortable. The film is constantly shifting, and growing, and it throws something new at its audiences with every scene. Even those viewers who chuckle and smile all the way through Hail, Caesar! are likely to leave the theater a little exhausted. And yet, as odd, as kinetic, and as messy as it often seems, the film remains entertaining throughout, and it never feels less than inspired.

Hail, Caesar! is overflowing with many things, one of which is narrative threads. Mannix (the figure that the film is the most concerned with), often disappears from the screen for long periods of time. Similarly, while Whitlock’s kidnapping is presented early as the film’s central conflict, it soon becomes just one of many issues that Mannix has to deal with. None of this changes the fact that the film is hilarious and consistently engaging, but it does mean that viewers expecting a direct and linear story may be frustrated. Though most of its scenes are quite strong on their own, Hail, Caesar!’s overarching narrative structure is noticeably loose and is brimming with moments that may feel like offshoots and tangents. The film is certainly intelligible, but viewers who are more concerned with its plot than they are with enjoying its individual moments may find it hard to follow. The quicker viewers adapt the film’s unorthodox style of storytelling, the better off they will be, and those who can accept Hail, Caesar! on its own terms will leave it much happier than those who can’t.

The film is also overstuffed with people and ideas. And while the jam-packed nature of Hail, Caesar! is responsible for much of its energy, its comedy, and its distinct personality, it also one of its most noticeable problems. For instance, there are simply too many cameos in the film. At times, it feels like every actor the Coens know finds their way into a scene or two, and the results are both dizzying and distracting. As much as I love Frances McDormand, her miniscule part should have gone to lesser known performer, and at least one of Tilda Swinton’s two characters could have been dispensed with. Furthermore, while the film does have plenty to say about the religion of cinema and about Mannix’s faith in that religion, it does not develop its thoughts on communism, celebrity, or homophobic blackmail quite as much as could have if it had more space to contain them.

But back to some of the places in which Hail, Caesar! is more solid. Though cinematography is not as frequently discussed with comedies as it is with dramas, Roger Deakins’s work here is masterful and rather striking (which should surprise no one). With its visuals, Hail, Caesar! brings its Hollywood and the various film genres it depicts to life beautifully. The look of the films manages to evoke a sense of timelessness without ever abandoning the bold humor that defines the script. And like most of Hail, Caesar!, it’s visuals also help to set it apart from other films while simultaneously demonstrating an undeniable love for movies in general.

Though the film’s many performances are not particularly noteworthy, the vast majority of them are exactly what the script and the world of the film both call for. Brolin does the best work in Hail, Caesar!, but Ehrenreich, Clooney, Tatum, Goldenhersh, and Fiennes each make an impact as well.

Though it is, for the most part, a comedic romp, Hail, Caesar! is also interested in rather weighty ideas, the most notable of which is the relationship between religion and the movies. In fact, if Hail, Caesar! has any clear message at all it’s that movies and moviemaking—even as messy and as ridiculous as they both often are—are worth the effort in the end. For, even as the Coens pull the curtain back on some of Hollywood’s seedy, laughable, and rather strange elements, they also joyfully embrace the films it produces.

In fact, Mannix—a Catholic—can easily be considered a sort of Christ figure. Just as Christ is supposed to save Whitlock’s character in Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, so too does Mannix bring his star actor back into the fold while shielding him from those who would do him harm. Mannix is also the son of the God at Capitol Pictures; where Mannix’s boss is never seen (just as God is never visually depicted in the film Whitlock starts in), Mannix himself is in the flesh among the people, where he works tirelessly for the good of the studio. Moreover, even though he doesn’t speak his love of film aloud, Mannix also cannot stand to hear movies or Capitol Pictures badmouthed in any way (he strikes Whitlock when he insults his boss, and he is clearly offended when the Lockheed Martin contractor trivializes his line of work). In Hail, Caesar!, Mannix is a devotee of the religion of movies; and though his work is often thankless, he knows that it is still right in the end.

Hail, Caesar! does demand a good deal from its viewers, but those who surrender to its ways are sure to enjoy themselves. While it isn’t hard to find problems with Hail, Caesar!, it’s also extremely difficult for me to imagine ever calling it a “bad film.” It may not be my favorite Coen Brothers movie at the moment, but I had so much fun while watching it, that I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it again and again. In fact, I’m already quite convinced that Hail, Caesar! will only improve with repeated viewing. As with so much of the Coens’ work, their affectionately farcical presentation of 1950s Hollywood is brimming with so many large and tangled ideas, that those who spend additional time with it are likely to be rewarded. For as flashy and as silly as Hail, Caesar! is on its surface, it’s also quite serious about the strange and wonderful world of film.

Until Next Time
As much as I hate to admit it, quite a few of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films remain on my watch list. That said, I’ve enjoyed all of those I have seen; now that Hail, Caesar!, is among them, I’m even more convinced that making time to watch the entire Coen Brother filmography is something that I need to do as soon as I can.

Thanks so much for reading! If you’d like to discuss Hail, Caesar! further, please leave a comment below. You can also connect with me by following this blog on twitter!