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

Tekken


In the future, there won't be enough fabric left for shirts.

In the future, there won’t be enough fabric left for shirts.

(2010) Martial Arts (Anchor Bay) Jon Foo, Kelly Overton, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Ian Anthony Dale, Cung Lee, Darren Dewitt Henson, Luke Goss, Mircea Monroe, Tamlyn Tomita, Candice Hillebrand, Marian Zapico, Gary Daniels, John Pyper-Ferguson, Roger Huerta, Lateef Crowder, Monica Mal. Directed by Dwight H. Little

When Arcade Games ruled the earth back in the 80s, there was (and continues to be) a subgenre known as the fighting game. Some of these, including Double Dragon and Mortal Kombat lived to become film adaptations and it took almost 20 years but now so does Tekken. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Jin (Foo) is a young fatherless man living in 2039. World War III has decimated the population of the planet and rendered a good portion of it uninhabited. Corporations rules the world now and have divided the planet amongst themselves (which gives corporations more credit for co–operation than they probably deserve). North America is ruled by the Tekken Corporation, which in turn is ruled by Heihachi Mishima (Tagawa).

When Jin’s mother and martial arts mentor Jun (Tomita) is killed during a crackdown by Tekken’s security forces, known as the Jackhammers, Jin – who as a contraband runner was closer to the insurgents than Jun ever was – discovers in the wreckage of his home a badge identifying his mother as a fighter in the Iron Fist tournament which promises riches and fame for life for the winner. Intrigued, Jin decides to enter.

He finds the Tournament to be a mess of intrigue. Heihachi’s son Kazuya (Dale) who is also his right hand man, is plotting to take over the company from his son and is using the highly popular tournament to do it. Jin finds an ally in Christie Monteiro (Overton) and a mentor in Steve Fox (Goss), a former tournament champion who sponsors new fighters.

He’ll be going up against fighters like Miguel Rojo (Huerta) and Bryan Fury (Daniels) as well as other mainstays of the game. The rules of the game however are changing and growing more deadly. With the stakes higher than they’ve ever been can Jin defeat the powerful forces aligned against him and emerge a fighting champion?

This is a very basic outline of the plot which goes into a lot more detail which really is unfortunate. The game itself as I remember it – I don’t think I’ve played a version of it since the 90s – was very simple and straightforward. Quite frankly I’m not sure that fans of the game are looking for a plot that’s anywhere as near as complicated as this.

What they’re looking for are the fights and those are done pretty well. The filmmakers even incorporated some of the moves from the game which was much appreciated by this ex-player. The style is definitely very similar to the look of the game, although obviously adjusted for the big screen.

There is a pretty goodly amount of CGI but quite a bit of it is surprisingly subpar. At times the footage looks like a 15-20 year old computer game. Considering the size of the budget, it’s incomprehensible why the effects looked so cheesy. If I were the filmmakers, I’d have been suing somebody.

The acting is passable which is about what you’d expect in a videogame adaptation but even for that notoriously underachieving subgenre of movies, this is pretty awful. Why is it that when Hollywood takes a videogame and makes a movie out of it they feel it necessary to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator, or give it little or no support in terms of getting good scripts, good effects and so on. No wonder the makers of such obviously cinematic games as Halo and World of Warcraft have given the thumbs down to letting Hollywood have their hands on the properties they’ve worked so hard and spent so much time and money to develop properly. It shows little or no respect for the videogame audience which is kind of bizarre considering that gamers go to a lot of movies themselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nifty fight sequences. Cast gives a game effort.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really subpar CGI. A mess of a plot.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and brutality with a side order of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Iron Fist Tournament fights were staged at the Hirsch Memorial Coliseum at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport, Louisiana.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interesting Canadian television documentary on  stuntmen which was largely shot on the set of this film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $967,369 on a $30M production budget; this was a box office catastrophe.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mortal Kombat

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Lovely, Still