Kubo and the Two Strings

This movie had “hipster fave” written all over it. Stop motion animation against all that CGI nonsense is like roasting your own coffee beans versus buying instant. So, I was obviously prepared to hate it. But it’s absolutely charming. It has its own style and a light touch throughout. Unlike hipsters it doesn’t take itself seriously, and yet manages to be moving and thought provoking. And the images are beautiful. It mixes different influences from Japanese art to Greek mythology and Disney animation, effortlessly and without needing to highlight them for you. The sidekicks are wry and amusing without being annoying – every other animation might want to take note of this in particular.

Nearly all films carry a meta-message. Even when they don’t. Taken is really about fear of foreigners and male white supremacy. It just looks like an action flick. Jaws is about three aspects of masculinity. The Thing is about having tendrils spin out from your face. What Kubo is about is the power of storytelling. The plot concerns this literally as Kubo spins stories from his two strings, but also in the medium. “Look” all that stop motion implores you, “we are constructing narrative here with our bare hands and narrative is powerful”. This is both a timeless message and one with particular currency.

But, then maybe I’m just a hipster.

Finding Dory

An odd thing has happened with Pixar movies, they have transformed from being smart kids movies with something in them for adults, to grown up movies disguised as kids films. Dealing with identity issues on retirement (Toy Story 3), coping with your growing irrelevance as a parent (Inside Out) and now caring for a relative with dementia in Finding Dory. I mean, would any grown ups go and see movies on these themes if they weren’t coated in the sugar pill of a light hearted animation?

In a world where a braying, bullying man-child is a serious contender for the most powerful job in the world, it is perhaps no surprise that the best medium for dealing with complex, grown up issues is children’s movies. Finding Dory is not quite up there with Pixar classics, but it has enough “dad, are you crying again” moments. It is an actual sequel in that it continues a story rather than just retelling the same one. But Pixar movies work best when we are introduced to a new world, and this one is already familiar so lacks the joy of all the small gags about how things work in this world (eg fish holding their breath to look out of the water). The plot relies too much of jumping one tank to another to really be engaging. But it cleverly maintains the animation style of the original with improvements in clarity. As if to illustrate the point about where they could have gone with the animation, the preceding short “Piper” is so realistic you wonder at what point all actors will be made redundant.

The Pixar formula of increasingly adult themes in a child’s body type movies may be nearing its end though I feel. There is a harsher, more chaotic blend around the corner I suspect that will appeal to kids more, but maybe their parents less.

Jungle Book

With only superhero movies or 15 certificate films as alternatives, my daughter and I opted for the Disney live action remake of Jungle Book. It was more interesting and engaging than either of us had anticipated. Firstly, the CGI is mostly convincing. This allows Disney to finally make the kind of live action movies they’ve always wanted to create. The previous versions relied on real footage of animals (Incredible Journey), which, let’s face it, you never liked as much as cartoons. The choice of voices for Jungle Book is fantastic – Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Idris Elba and Scarlett Johansson all imbue their characters with authenticity (Walken is particularly brilliant).

It’s more or less a straight remake of the animated version, but with live action the narrative has more drive, rather than being a sequence of musical set pieces (the nods at the original music in this remake seem forced). It also racks up the peril when you have realistic, fire-scarred tigers or dark, brooding jungle. This film could be quite significant in two respects. Now that CGI and live action really works, Disney will be busily combing their back catalogue to remake all their classic animated films. A live action version of Pinocchio, complete with being swallowed by whales, boys transforming into donkeys and a freaking puppet that comes to life, would be terrifying. When these stories look real and are played relatively straight, we’ll appreciate how dark they really are. And now that the CGI/live action mix has been cracked, one wonders why studios will bother with animation at all?