Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans

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Dracula Untold


Enter the dragon.

Enter the dragon.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley, Ronan Vibert, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal, Joe Benjamin, Paul Bullion, Mish Boyko, Dilan Gwyn, Louise Parker. Directed by Gary Shore

You may think you know the story of Dracula but most of us only know his Victorian-age story as told by Bram Stoker. However, even by that point the infamous vampire was centuries old, the undead creature once known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who was already a bit of a monster while he was still alive. Of course, history is often a different tale than what those who were there might have narrated.

Vlad who as a boy was sent to live with the Turks as a sort of tribute (and also to keep the numerically superior Turkish army from annihilating the Transylvanians) wants nothing more than to live in peace with his people and his family – his wife Mirena (Gadon) and son Ingeras (Parkinson).

But that is not to be. A Turkish delegation arrives, demanding that the Transylvanians supply them with a thousand boys to serve in the Sultan’s army – including Vlad’s own son. Vlad tries to reason with them, but the envoy won’t hear of it. When a small party of Turks comes to take Ingeras, Vlad kills all of them.

Knowing they can never defeat the massive Turkish army who are well-armed and well-trained, Vlad turns desperate to protect his family at all costs. He ascends a forbidding mountain and there meets the Master Vampire (Dance), a creature half of myth and legend but certainly real enough. He cautions Vlad that the price for power is staggeringly high. If Vlad drinks of the vampire’s blood, he will have most of the vampire’s powers for three days. If he can keep from drinking human blood in that three day period, he will return to his human form. Should Vlad drink any human blood during those three days, a vampire he’ll remain for eternity and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison and be allowed to walk the world again after centuries of imprisonment.

At first it seems like Vlad made a great bargain; he defeats a Turkish battalion by himself, able to change into bats, control the creatures of the night and possessed of the strength of a hundred men. However, the thirst is proving to be more difficult to resist than he might have thought possible. He also discovers that this was just a diversionary tactic by the Turks and they are coming with an army of hundreds of thousands to wipe out the Transylvanians, led by the Sultan (Cooper) himself, once a boyhood friend of Vlad’s. Can he find a way to defeat the Turks and keep his humanity at the same time?

This is one of those movies that mixes in fact and fiction together to create a different kind of brew, although the “facts” are somewhat fast and loose. In fact, just about the only thing the writers got right was that Dracula which translates depending on who you ask as the Son of the Dragon, or the Son of the Devil, was a prince of Transylvania who would impale his enemies as a means of intimidation. There the distinctions stop. There were no Turks in the 15th century; back then it was known as the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were but one ethnic group in the Empire. Also, his wife’s name was Ilona, not Mirena. He had a daughter named Mircea and a son named Mihnea but no child named Ingeras. Nor was Vlad all that popular among his nobles who were angered by his usurping of what they thought were their rights. Vlad wanted autocratic authority.

All that could have been forgiven if we’d been given a dynamic Vlad but Evans doesn’t deliver one. We get a fairly bland portrayal of the legendary nobleman, one that lacks force or charisma. We never get much of a sense as to what Vlad is like other than that he’s a devoted family man. That’s all well and good but we get a sense of his cruelty only by reputation; Vlad the Impaler might as well have been nicknamed Vlad the Doting Dad. There are a couple of scenes of stakes with Vlad watching them in anguish but that seems pretty at odds with the kind of guy who had no problems letting his enemies die horribly painful deaths. Evans seems distracted, like his mind is on a different movie than the one he’s shooting.

Mirena’s role isn’t well-defined. One gets a sense she’s supposed to be fiercely devoted to her son and husband and that she was strong enough to stand up to her sometimes hot-tempered husband but then at other times she seems uncharacteristically meek and submissive. Thus we are unable to get a real handle on who the true Mirena is.

The special effects are nifty, particularly Dracula transforming into a flock of bats, or controlling the storm near the end of the film. By and large though this isn’t as effects-driven as you might think; mostly this is a costumed action-adventure film in horror sheep’s clothing. The sets are extravagant looking and the cinematography of Ireland (subbing for the Carpathian Mountains) is lovely.

It can be said that this is lovely packaging for essentially an empty box. The suspense element is by the boards because we all know that Vlad is destined to be an immortal vampire so we know that he is going to consume the blood within those three days; it’s just a matter of how and when. So we’re left with mindlessly entertaining,,merely a trifle that will be forgotten the moment you leave the theater.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects sequences. Lush cinematography and nice sets and costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Evans is a bit wooden. Bloated and stodgy in places. Some historical inaccuracies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence, scenes of bloody vampire attacks, some disturbing images and a little sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam Worthington was originally set to star until he had to drop out and was replaced by Evans.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!