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Peter T Chattaway

Kubo and the Two Strings

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Links to our threads on previous Laika productions Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and The Boxtrolls (2014).

 

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Laika & Focus Begin Production On All-Star ‘Kubo And The Two Strings’ To Kick Off 3-Pic Deal

EXCLUSIVE: After winning Oscar nominations for its first two animated features Coraline and ParaNorman — and possibly a third for current release, The Boxtrolls — Oregon-based Laika and Focus Features today announced production is underway on their fourth collaboration, Kubo And The Two Strings. The new film is described as a “sweeping, swashbuckling adventure set in a mythical ancient Japan” and will be filmed in the company’s signature 3D stop-motion and CG hybrid technique.

Kubo is the first of a new three-picture deal for Laika and Focus announced in October. Knight and Focus CEO Peter Schlessel made today’s announcement.

Laika’s president and CEO Travis Knight is making his directorial debut on the film, from an original screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (ParaNorman). Knight is producing with Arianne Sutner and the starry voice cast includes Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes and Brenda Vaccaro as well as Game Of Thrones star Art Parkinson, who is providing the voice of Kubo. The film is set for domestic release on August 19th, 2016. Focus Features will handle domestic, while Universal Pictures International will take on the rest of the world.

The script is taken from Japanese folktales and mythology and centers on young Kubo, who lives a quiet, normal life in a small shoreside village until a spirit from the past turns his life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo who, in order to survive, must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, a legendary Samurai warrior. . . .

Deadline.com, December 22

 

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Link to the Priceonomics story on how Travis Knight -- whose father, billionaire Nike CEO Phil Knight, acquired the stop-motion studio that became Laika -- went from being a failed rapper to being an intern at Laika to being the CEO of the company (thus displacing the company's founder, stop-motion legend Will Vinton). A sample:

 

When Phil Knight came on as an investor in 1998, he had a request. Tom Turpin, Vinton’s CEO, recalls:

 

“Phil approached us and said, ‘Hey, my son’s trying to be a rapper. I don’t know if you have any spots, but would you be willing to give him a shot?’ Of course, we welcomed Travis; he was a low key, unassuming guy -- and how can you say no to Phil Knight?”

 

With no knowledge of animation, Travis Knight was assigned “mop duty” -- he started out in the doldrums of the CGI department, rendering whiskers on The PJs’ Thurgood Stubbs. Nobody at Vinton Studios knew he was the heir to a man worth $9 billion ($16.3 billion today) -- a man who’d just purchased 15% of the company. 
 

And nobody knew that in three years’ time, the kid would be sitting on the studio’s board of directors -- or that, in less than a decade, he’d be its president and CEO. . . .

 

In the course of two years, a severely mismanaged Vinton Studios blew through more than $7 million in funding, largely due to their unwillingness to scale back the team even more. There was only one hope to salvage the company, and it came with a swoosh. 

 

Farnath, Vinton Studios’ new CEO, approached Phil Knight “with his tail between his legs,” and asked the businessman to put in more money -- just a few years after Knight had put up $5 million. This time, Knight had leverage to be a controlling shareholder. 

 

“If I’m gonna put my money into a hemorrhaging company, I’m gonna own it,” Knight told Farnath. With a second investment, he swiftly assumed control of the board, and appointed Nike veterans to join him. Ownership secured, his next plan of action was to give his son a seat at the table.

 

In late 2003, Travis Knight was promoted to the board of directors. With only a few years of production experience under his belt, “Chilly Tee” was now Will Vinton’s boss. In his time as an animator, Knight had actually become astonishingly good -- one of the best in the business -- but by all accounts, he didn't qualify to operate a company. Just six months later, citing “mounting pressure” from Phil Knight, Will Vinton stepped down from the board and was fired from his office position.

 

Two years earlier, Vinton’s stock had been worth $20 million; now, he sat alone in a cold board room, with a $125,000 severance package in front of him. “I was devastated,” recalls Vinton. “Devastated.”

 

He took Phil Knight to court, suing him on the grounds he’d been unfairly ousted. The whole thing had been part of a grand scheme, he claimed, for Knight to give his kid a company. His charge of corporate nepotism wasn’t unsubstantiated -- Knight had no reservations in admitting he’d acquired the company with his son in mind. But the case was dismissed, and the Knights proceeded to strip and reconstruct Vinton Studios into an entirely different company. . . .

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Attica   

That trailer really is a thing of beauty.  This kind of stuff is the reason why I became interested in film in the first place.  Hopefully the film will live up to the trailer.

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Evan C   

Laika hasn't had the best trajectory with their films, so I'm keeping my expectations in check, but OH. MY. GOSH. that trailer is incredible both visually and aurally. I so hope this is on the level of Coraline.

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Evan C   

I am now of the opinion that the brilliance of Coraline is 87% Neil Gaiman's influence.

For nearly 90 minutes, one very brief lag in storytelling aside, Kubo was pretty much my uncontested favorite animated film of the year. Unfortunately, the film is 101 minutes long.

Following what was truly a stunning, inspired, and at times breathtaking movie, the ending is so horrifically miscalculated, for both thematic and plot-related reasons, that I'm not sure how to describe it. If you're a Red Sox fan, it would be like watching the 1986 world series. If you're a parent of a student on track to be valedictorian, it would be like watching your kid drop out of school to pursue a life of drug dealing. Or, if you were a lifelong Republican and knew 2016 was your party's presidential election to lose, it would be liking watching your party throw away the election by nominating Donald Trump.

As soon as we learn the villain's identity early on, I said to myself, "I hope it doesn't go for the have your cake and eat it ending that plagued ParaNorman." And then it goes there, and goes there, and goes there, and...

This is definitely a better film than The Boxtrolls, but The Boxtrolls was a far less disappointing film.

EDIT: I would *love* to be persuaded that I'm wrong about the ending if anyone else has seen it, and thinks differently.

 

Edited by Evan C

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SDG   

Converging agreement, Evan — and I can tell you Peter feels the same way about the miscalculation in question. I don't think anyone is going to persuade us otherwise. And yes, you're absolutely right to finger ParaNorman as the root of the mischief here. 

I say "converging agreement" because the brilliance of the first 90 minutes is so magnificent that it laid to rest my concerns that Coraline was a fluke to be chalked up to Gaiman's influence. Kubo is stone cold proof that Laika can be brilliant without Gaiman.

I would say, for 90 minutes it's more brilliant than Coraline. The way I often felt watching Kubo I felt only once or twice watching Coraline, notably during the "What a piece of work is man" trapeze sequence that launches Coraline out of visionary storybook Gothic and into pure poetry. Kubo affected me that way early and often. 

No, they don't stick the landing. Yes, it's a big disappointment that they go the route they do at the end. But although the villain in question is named early, dramatically the main antagonists are otherwise — and they don't get a having-and-eating resolution. That goes a long way with me. To an extent I can bracket what follows. (Only to an extent.) 

My gosh, so much I love before that. 

Among the many things I love about the film's celebration of Japanese culture, the use of origami in Kubo's song-magic and storytelling is magnificent.

Also, finally a Laika film has good parents — and such parents! Kubo's relationship with his mother — in its two very different phases — is so, so wonderful. And Matthew McConaughey — what a casting coup! 

I saw the film with my 15yo son James, who saw and hated hated hated The Tale of Princess Kaguya ("It makes you want to kill first the filmmaker and then yourself"). Both of us saw in Kubo a kind of critique / rebuttal of Kaguya. We really didn't like where the critique ended up, but what a magnificent journey. 

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Evan C   

Thanks, SDG. I agree that Kubo offers proof that Laika can be brilliant without Gaiman, but I am getting really disappointed that they can't stick a landing without him.

I should also add that regarding Boxtrolls, I read your review before seeing the film, so I braced myself, and that's probably why I found it less disappointing than Kubo.

Where's the spoilers tag? SPOILERS from here on.

 

I think what annoyed me most about the ending was not that the moon king turned out to be a misunderstood old man whose fear of death and dreams of power and immortality had corrupted him, but the part that came after that. As I read it, it seemed the villagers just started lying to the old man to make him feel better. I get the idea was to tell a new story, but there was no element of fantasy, myth, or legend to what they told him. They just told him what they thought he would like to hear. If the old man had remembered and broken down in sorrow over what he had done, and the village reached out to him in solidarity, I think I would have been far less disappointed. That wouldn't have fixed the problem of making a formerly demonic character abruptly no longer evil, but I think it would have helped a little.

On a dramatic level, making the moon king just a confused mortal man made me wonder how he had three sorceresses as children.

Edited by Evan C

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Attica   
5 hours ago, Evan C said:

Following what was truly a stunning, inspired, and at times breathtaking movie, the ending is so horrifically miscalculated

Spoiler Warnings.  You have been warned...... :) 

 

I hate to say it, but I also saw some flaws in the first 90 minutes (especially in how it handled the monkey - some of her choices didn't make a lot of sense, even after being supposedly explained).  I still really enjoyed the film though.  It looked fantastic.  Some of the shots and scenes were just so impacting.

The "return" at the end was so completely confusing and unfitting.  But even another thing to consider.  Why is it that the main villain gets redeemed and the sisters don't?  How redemptive is that aspect of the film then?

 

But really, the final encounter with the main villain was just great, until the snake bit, that didn't quite seem to fit for me.  Then after that..... it went strange.

 

The whole business about the memories of past relatives would have been nice if it had have been done right.  Namely if they had have taken away the prayer part (which was easily the most spiritually problematic) and just worked the memory aspect into the story in some way from the start.  Of course the main villain's memory issues should never have been in this story, no way, no how, but I can see that the other two could have been worked in there fine enough.

 

4 hours ago, SDG said:

Among the many things I love about the film's celebration of Japanese culture, the use of origami in Kubo's song-magic and storytelling is magnificent.

 

 

Yes, absolutely.  What he was doing with his music was wonderful.  Such a beautiful piece of music played lovingly, and also playfully.  It all had such a delicate touch.

Yet at times could also be so powerful.

One of the flaws for me through most of the film was the "American" humour and banter that was throughout.  I wouldn't call it grating, but at times it seemed to be foisting a different cultural sensibility where it wasn't needed or appropriate, and in this taking away from some of the profound aspects of the story.  

Some humour, sure, but they seemed to be borrowing from a Hollywood template a bit.

 

3 hours ago, Evan C said:

As I read it, it seemed the villagers just started lying to the old man to make him feel better.

I wasn't sure how to read that.  Which was part of the problem.  It all became so confusing.

I think the film might have been saying that he had been there before, and that the older villagers remembered.  But then what if the little kid?  It's strange though, it's supposed to be redemptive, but it never really came across that way.  It just seemed to come across as a powerful being losing his "power and majesty" and becoming befuddled.

 

3 hours ago, Evan C said:

On a dramatic level, making the moon king just a confused mortal man made me wonder how he had three sorceresses as children.

 

Yeah, that's another part that doesn't fit.  He would obviously needed to have had those children while he was still human.  But if so, and if he was originally part of the village, then why didn't anyone recognize Kubo's mother?   Mind you, the film does seem to suggest that she remembers the village from before.

 

3 hours ago, Evan C said:

Where's the spoilers tag?

Yeah, I was looking for that as well.

Edited by Attica

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Evan C   
9 hours ago, Attica said:

Spoiler Warnings.  You have been warned...... :) 

 

But really, the final encounter with the main villain was just great, until the snake bit, that didn't quite seem to fit for me.  Then after that..... it went strange.

I was onboard with the snake, and when Kubo was tying the three strands of hair together on the shamisen to show the love of his family was more powerful than the moon king, I was absolutely loving it. And then the next scene came. Oh well, we still have 90% of a great movie.

Edited by Evan C

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Attica   

Yeah, the three strands was a fine idea, so far as that goes.

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SDG   

My rhapsodic-yet-conflicted review. 

Some of the rhapsodic: 

Quote

Kubo and the Two Strings comes close to being a masterpiece, and one of the two best American animated films in years, the other being Pixar’s Inside Out. Kubo thrilled, dazzled and delighted me, brought tears to my eyes, and broke my heart — in the end, not entirely in a good way, but let’s start with the good.

Laika president and CEO Travis Knight, a lead animator on prior projects, fills his directorial debut with wondrous, visionary images…

Laika goes a long way here toward redressing its history of lackluster parents. Kubo’s mother, we gather, went to heroic lengths to save Kubo as an infant from supernatural enemies, though it has taken a toll on her: She is withdrawn and seems confused, and Kubo tenderly cares for her as she once did for him. (A stray grain of rice on her chin as Kubo feeds her, which he plucks with chopsticks and places in her mouth, is typical of Laika’s attention to incidental detail.)

Then there's the Tale of Princess Kaguya connection (noted also by my 15yo son, who saw and was traumatized by Princess Kaguya): 

Quote

For much of its running time, Kubo wouldn’t compare unfavorably to a Ghibli film. In fact, some plot elements invite favorable comparison to a 2013 Ghibli film with which I had notable problems: The Tale of Princess Kaguya…

The mythology of Princess Kaguya includes a race of celestial beings who live on the moon, a divine realm free of sorrow and grief, but also of love and compassion. One such being comes to Earth and forms human attachments, but, eventually, her people come for her, and, against her will, her human memories are taken away, and she returns to the heartless serenity of her people.

Like Kaguya, Kubo is a tale of gods and monsters, which in many of the world’s mythologies may amount to the same thing. The film rejects an inhuman sort of immortal beatitude — “cold and hard and perfect” — very different from perfection or beatitude in Christian belief.

And finally the conflicted part (with a shout-out to Evan and A&F): 

Quote

Sometimes, partway through a new movie you’re starting to love, you may find yourself silently pleading, “Please don’t mess it up. Please don’t mess it up.” Well, guess what.

In the finale comes a misstep so spectacularly wrongheaded it essentially derails the movie.

This is trivial, though, to the coup de grace: an attempted stab at a generous, empathic redemptive ending that doubles down on the mistakes of ParaNorman in particular, and then some.

A confused character is embraced in a condescending, utterly dishonest way — emotionally dishonest and literally dishonest. Past evils aren’t forgiven or atoned for, but swept under the rug. To borrow an observation made by Evan Cogswell (Catholic Cinephile) at Arts & Faith, instead of either truth (always good) or poetic fantasy and myth (potentially valid), we get mere kindly lies to make someone feel good.

 

Edited by SDG

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SDG   

P.S. I was wrong about the dragon. It's a giant centipede — and apparently centipedes in Japanese mythology are associated with evil spirits. It seems there are stories of giant centipedes attacking and torturing people. (Source)

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Man I dunno, I haven't seen the film but I like the ending ya'll are describing...interesting. I'll have to see it and come back here. Doubt I'll change any minds if I do end up liking it, but worth adding to the conversation anyways.

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Attica   
On August 19, 2016 at 5:21 PM, Justin Hanvey said:

Doubt I'll change any minds if I do end up liking it,

 

Me too.   ;)

 

 

 

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SDG   

FWIW, virtually everyone I've heard from, including one person who might love the film more than I do, agrees that the ending is a problem. 

In my combox at the Register I did hear from one person who defended the ending, contrasting it with the merciless endings of many Hollywood films. My response (somewhat spoilery, but no more than the preceding discussion): 

Quote

Believe me, I am all about movies offering grace and/or redemption to villainous characters, from Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi to the Sour Kangaroo in Horton Hears a Who! I love the films of Hayao Miyazaki, in which antagonists as formidable as the witch Yubaba in Spirited Away can unexpectedly reveal a more human side and be embraced by the protagonist whether she deserves it or not. 
    
Better yet, Miyazaki often crafts movies with no villain at all. I wish more Hollywood animated fare did this; I think the villain trope is overused. Movies like Disney’s Zootopia and How to Train Your Dragon 2 are harmed, in my opinion, by their reliance on the villain trope, particularly because their villains are unrepentant. Even in a film I love as much as Pixar’s Up, the unrepentant villain and the way he meets his end are asterisks for me. Conversely, I love cartoons like Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep that dispense with the need for a villain. 
    
On the other hand, there is such a thing as cheap grace, and that’s a problem too. I don’t need villainous characters, but if you create a character that is clearly deeply evil and indeed virtually demonic, then you have to take that seriously. There is such a thing as evil, and evil choices and evil acts have consequences. Repentance is possible, grace is real, and atonement can happen, but these things come at a cost. 
  
This is something I think the people at Laika have a problem with. 
  
You wouldn’t guess this from Coraline, where the controlling vision is Gaiman’s. In ParaNorman, though, we meet scary zombies who turn out to be not malicious at all, but only victims of a witch’s curse, except that they’re the judges who cruelly condemned her for being a witch in a Salem-like trial, except they only condemned her because they were afraid and fear made them cruel. 
  
All of this is fine as far as it goes — in particular the idea of offering understanding to witch-burning Puritan judges is impressive — but then the witch, whose malice and iconic evil the film has established in no uncertain terms, turns out to be just a sad, angry little girl who only needs understanding and compassion. No. Maybe that’s what she once was, but she’s become something else, something much worse, and that needs to be taken seriously. 
  
I didn’t need the final villain in Kubo and the Two Strings to be as villainous as he was, nor did I need to see him destroyed or humiliated. He could have been true to himself and simply returned to his own domain once it became clear he wasn’t getting what he wanted. 

Alternatively, he could possibly have been redeemed — if he had shown contrition, if he had been overwhelmed with guilt and grief over the enormity of his crimes, and been compassionately embraced and forgiven by the people. That would have been some tricky writing, but it would have been a more honest, and would have gone some way toward ameliorating my objections. 

 

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I still haven't seen it, probably will wait for DVD as I think it's one I'd like to see with my wife, but if I'm getting the idea of the ending right from what ya'll are saying, villain is old man, old man loses his memories of his villainous deeds, villagers tell him a different life story than the one he really had, I'm honestly loving that. This idea that our identities are in some way wrapped up in what we did, but the power of new stories to redefine us. I know it seems cheap, but there's also hope there, it's kinda Steinbeckian, timshel, this old man doesn't have to be evil anymore, and what he believes about himself, what the villagers tell him, well, that will redeem him. Of course he still has the long hard road of making better choices. There's not much penance there, I agree, and it feels unfair...but I dunno if it always has to be fair. It reminds me of this quote by Juergen Moltmann,

Quote

"'it is a source of endlessly consoling joy to know, not just that the murderers will finally fail to triumph over their victims, but that they cannot in eternity even remain the murderers of their victims."

I'll still need to see it to see if the feeling I have towards it holds up, or if it feels wrong. Steven may be right and it's too cheap.

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Evan C   

SPOILERS

I think the reason that explanation doesn't work for me, is that the moon king (who turns out to be a confused old man) only has five minutes of screen time, and at least three of those minutes are him trying to kill his grandson and wipe out an entire village who's in his way. It's one thing for the village to extend forgiveness; it's another to pretend it never happened, especially when there's been no dramatic suggestion that he's anything other than some sort of evil demigod. If the film had provided some earlier hints that the moon king had a prior identity among the villagers, maybe it would have worked better, maybe not.

Edited by Evan C

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Attica   

Justin said - "villain is old man, old man loses his memories of his villainous deeds, villagers tell him a different life story than the one he really had, I'm honestly loving that. This idea that our identities are in some way wrapped up in what we did, but the power of new stories to redefine us. I know it seems cheap, but there's also hope there,"

 

SPOILERS

But that's not how it was as I saw it.  Here's my version.  "Villain is a powerful majestic being who was at least in part the cause of his daughter's suffering and demise, and who turned his other two daughters to evil.  This in a story that puts emphasis on having correct memories, putting incorrect memories or confused and befuddled memories as being a bad thing, even a sign of a curse.  This powerful, majestic being comes out of that place to become a befuddled man, whereby he never learns any lesson whatsoever about how wrong and destructive his behaviour was.  This when his very own daughters, whom he surely played a part in corrupting, die terrible deaths without one iota of a chance of redemption.  Thus there's not one inch of justice on several levels.  The befuddled old man doesn't even have the understanding of being forgiven (and actually never said he was sorry in order to be), or the understanding that he received mercy, or grace.  Instead his is given incorrect memories which serve to block any such understanding, by a child who is basically lying to an adult in front of other adults who accept this.

And this from a refusal to let the villain die in a film which treats dying as not actually being all that terrible of a thing, because memories live on.  Yet now the villain doesn't even have memories.

He's actually been robbed.  Robbed of redemption, of the understanding of mercy and grace that could have been his to know, and robbed of the memories (again which the film places a great emphasis on) of his children, or at least the one who had turned to the good.

Edited by Attica

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