Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)
Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika Entertainment’s latest and most ambitious production to date. A combination of painstakingly captured stop motion and CGI, Kubo and the Two Strings certainly delivers on sheer spectacle. Its unparalleled animation, stunning cinematography and Dario Marianelli’s original score all contributed to the sense of awe I experienced for the work-ethic and craftsmanship involved in this film’s creation. And yet, Kubo struggled to break even at the box office, earning a measly $61.6 million from its $60 million budget. So what went wrong? What was it about this masterclass in filmmaking that didn’t appeal to the vast majority of the movie-going masses?
Upon retrospection, it appeared to me that the killing blow was dealt by the film’s confused target demographic because trying to please everyone often pleases nobody at all. Though that is not the case here, some elements of Kubo may be slightly jarring for some. For example, whilst its complex and intriguing themes invite philosophical reflection, the stop-motion genre is generally utilised as a children’s medium, leaving the film in a sort of purgatory between audiences. Furthermore, despite the sophisticated subject matter, occasionally the humour can feel forced and childish, particularly with the Beetle character’s dialogue (Matthew McConnaughey). However, the plot is anything but simplistic. In fact, it’s almost bewildering in its hidden complexities as themes of the afterlife, the power of memory, coping with loss and embracing creativity are all explored through intriguing metaphors and symbolism that would be difficult for a child to comprehend (even I struggled but perhaps that’s not saying much).
Moreover, the magical ancient Japanese setting imbues the film with life as the landscapes, architecture and the overall design emphasise the epic scale of Kubo’s action-packed adventure. Having said that, it also raises questions about diversity in Hollywood as the most significant roles are voiced by white actors, leading many to accuse Laika Entertainment’s casting team of ‘whitewashing’. This is problematic in an industry that is gradually coming to grips with external pressures to become more politically correct but this should by no means deter you as it fully embraces the philosophies and the art of ancient Japan. Thus, I am confident that if the ‘conscientious objectors’ were actually to watch Kubo, their concerns about the film being racist would be well and truly buried (in a reinforced lead coffin) within minutes.
Overall, the visual style and narrative simply ooze fun and thus, Kubo and the Two Strings certainly deserved its overwhelmingly positive critical reception. However, if we consider the amount of dedication and love that went into the production of this film, Laika inarguably deserved commercial success too. And if films such as these are not supported by audiences, studios will lose confidence in original, beautifully crafted movies and we will be denied masterpieces like Kubo in favour of remakes and reboots. Now that would be a very joyless world indeed.
Let’s just hope it picks up that best animated film award in February, eh?
The Neon Demon (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
A ‘Marmite film’ if ever there was one and graphic in EVERY sense of the word. Drive and Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological thriller and critique of the modelling industry – The Neon Demon – is certainly not for the faint hearted. With this in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand its failure to draw in a large target audience than with many of the other box office bombs of 2016. Despite The Neon Demon’s insane twists and horrific scenes, which may be enjoyable for some in their own right, there is a subtle touch to Refn’s narrative construction as it only becomes clear once the film is complete that each line of dialogue was written with the ending in mind. This technique meant that I found myself piecing the puzzle together for hours after I had left the cinema which is no mean feat for the film medium.
Furthermore, people that know Refn will surely be aware of his distinctive, stylised colour-palette which is influenced by his colour-blindness. Whilst Drive mainly utilised orange and blue hues to create a unique aesthetic, pink and blue are the predominant colours here so each shot is packed with symbolism: naivety versus a clinical mindset, modesty versus narcissism, virginity versus sexuality. Thus, in my opinion, the lighting and cinematography are worth the price of admission alone as so much thought has gone into each shot that it will certainly benefit from repeat viewings just to soak in Refn’s deranged ideas. However, I have just eaten my lunch, so I’ll probably wait until later…
My personal experience at the cinema was actually rather an amusing one. The film was lingering at a measly 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes at the time so I had my doubts about spending my money on a film with such sub-par reviews (yes, I’m a cheapskate, but I’m a student so give me a break). My friend, one of these terrible ‘glass half full’ types, managed to convince me that this was actually a good thing. Exactly 50 percent of critics enjoyed the film and exactly 50 percent hated it – the very definition of divisive. ‘And you’re a weirdo,’ he said, ‘you’re bound to like it!’ So we both walked in with no expectations whatsoever and we were rather rowdy, whispering witty criticisms about the creepiness of certain characters’ lines and laughing at their strange, unnatural behaviour. At one point we were even hushed for our – let’s say – animated reactions (I’m a terrible person, never go to the cinema with me) by some very serious types who were earnestly evaluating the film’s artistic qualities. Word of advice: do not do that – not on your first viewing anyway. Refn himself has described his films as ‘pornography’ so if that’s any indication of the level of sincerity in The Neon Demon, you may wish to just go with it. It truly enhances the enjoyment. However, by the last 30 minutes of the film, Refn had corrupted the entire audience and we were all grimacing, laughing and squirming in our seats uncomfortably. A spectacular experience.
This film will definitely be too much for most people and that’s very understandable. An act that Jena Malone’s character commits before the jaw-dropping final act will put many people off immediately. Despite this, Refn, Malone and the rest of the cast definitely deserve respect for their daring decisions and the film truly deserves to be seen and discussed by a larger audience. This is no: reboot, remake or generic genre film. The Neon Demon is an entirely different beast…
Think Black Swan meets the cult Youtube series Don’t Hug me I’m Scared.
Like many other people, I found myself very underwhelmed by the summer blockbusters that 2016 had to offer: your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Suicide Squads, X-Men: Apocalypses and even Captain America: Civil War to a certain extent as they seemed to be just re-treading old ground that I, as a comic book reader, had already seen countless times before. It was the movies with smaller budgets that really impressed me this year. Even the wildly successful ones such as Deadpool which at least tried to experiment with their genre a little. However, outside of the mainstream genres like action, retro remakes and quippy superhero films, the original movies weren’t really financially rewarded for their efforts last year. This, to me, highlights some of the problems with modern audiences. Our reliance on recognisable brands to make our movies. Our tendency to stick to familiar concepts and characters. Our inability to realise that we are just being sold the same movies over and over again (*coughs* Star Wars *coughs*). Admittedly, I do see the issues with the films I chose to review in this article but they are new experiences for us to feast our eyeballs on and that’s what makes them special. Take Chi-Raq for example, a musical/Greek Comedy about gun crime in Chicago, The Witch, a criminally underrated period piece horror movie or the brutal Western Horror mashup Bone Tomahawk. All masterpieces in their respective fields and yet they under-performed with audiences. But who am I to talk? I haven’t seen Arrival or Silence…