Kubo and the Two Oscars: Reviewing Modern Animation

Every year, the nominations for the Oscars serve as a reminder that I have not been to the cinema enough. When I do manage to catch a great film at the cinema and it receives an Academy Award nomination, I get a sense of participation and excitement. I feel as though my cinema adventure has granted me emotional access to a dramatic, end of year contest.

That said, I understand that the Oscars are largely political and in all honesty they do not mean a great deal to me.

Having put hours of hard work into completing my University degree and moving to a new country this year, sadly I have had little time to attend the cinema. As an artist, and being surrounded by artistic people, I have prioritised my cinema trips for animation features this year.

That is why I am particularly interested in the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Picture for 2016. The competition is strong, but it is my hope that the admirable and painstaking work of Laika Studios will not go underappreciated again this year.

Oscars Favourite:

Year after year, I see Disney sweep up the Animation Awards, leaving genuine works of art like Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya on the sidelines. I am always excited when an underdog succeeds over the mammoth company that is Disney.

While admittedly I have not been a huge fan of Laika’s previous work, I certainly admire the talent and craftsmanship that is lovingly etched into each of their films.

This year however, I was genuinely blown away by the visual dynamism and sheer mastery of craft seen in Kubo and the Two Strings.

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There is an unfortunate stagnation within the Western film animation industry; the big-name companies, like Disney and Dreamworks, have become the trendsetters and tend to win Oscars for their work every year. These companies have steadfastly committed to 3D animation as the sole form of contemporary animation. The last 2D feature film from Disney was The Princess and The Frog, and even that came after a long pause in Disney’s two-dimensional output!

In the West, Laika studios have been the only company to practise and commit to alternative forms of animation, namely stop-motion, on a big scale. Over the years, they have honed both their craft and their distinctive style with films like Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls.

2016 saw the release of what I feel is their strongest and most dynamic work yet. Kubo and the Two Strings sets itself firmly apart from the other animated works of this year.

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If you must blink, do it now:

Seeing is believing and believe me when I tell you that the look and feel of the film is unlike anything else currently in cinemas. There is a tangible weight and tactile presence to Kubo, leaving the horde of other computer generated films coming across as floaty and artificial by comparison.

Set in an ancient, rural Japan, the world of Kubo and the Two Strings has a fantastical feel to it, but it is unmistakably real. It is easy to forget that you are watching a stop-motion feature as the animation is so smooth and vibrant, without any of the awkward jumps or skips seen in many older works of stop-motion.

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The attention to detail is one of the film’s most charming qualities. Unlike so many other animated films aimed at younger audiences, the characters in Kubo and the Two Strings are not compelled to run around and ricochet off one another with one-liners or pop-culture jokes.

In fact, one of my favourite moments is when Kubo arrives in the local town; everyone is walking about and tending to their daily tasks. In the corner, you see two men sitting down to enjoy a game of Go. The concentration in their eyes, the focused stance, and the fan gently wafting away the summer heat present an engaging and humble moment in the lives of these townsfolk.

This shot only lasts for a moment, but as Kubo looks around the familiar town, we feel how life goes on in this village. You wonder how long this game of Go has been going on for, but you can be sure that the two men are thoroughly engaged by it.

This film has a more modest sensibility to it; Kubo and the Two Strings is a simple tale and one that will be told again in many different ways for years to come. That is not to say that it is forgettable or average in any way. Ultimately, it is a story about family and in more ways than you might think.

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While Disney’s Zootopia dealt with the gargantuan task of discussing societal and racial divides very well, it is almost unsurprising coming from the power house that is Disney. They have the benefit of decades of trust and brand recognition to gain enough groundswell to tackle such weighty subject matter like race  and emotional complexity.

This certainly gives an edge to Disney this year at the Oscars. That said, the writers at Disney have indeed honed their skills in storytelling to now make poignant films that do not come across as superficial or patronising.

I do wish that Disney had opted to tackle more significant subject matter earlier however, as I feel Disney now have the luxury to basically print money.

I will admit that I was more than a little disappointed that the Best Animated Picture of 2013 was the firmly average fairytale Frozen, rather than the emotional and earnest, if controversial, biopic The Wind Rises. While that film was not Hayao Miyazaki’s best, I felt that The Wind Rises was certainly a more poignant and thought provoking experience than what came across as a remastered 1990s princess film.

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This may serve to highlight why I am so eager to see filmmakers other than Disney succeed at the Oscars. Disney have become such an enormous business empire that one or two Academy Award losses over the years means very little, while even a single victory at the Oscars for smaller filmmakers can mean the world to them.

Pain is Temporary, Art is Forever:

I appreciate the hours, weeks, and months that it has taken for the artisans at Laika to craft the world and characters of Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika have been working on films for so many years, yet the list is surprisingly short. Stop-motion films are a serious investment in time, skill, money, and effort. More than most studios are willing to commit.

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Most studios cannot afford the time or production costs to make two feature animated films per year, let alone one. In 2016 alone, Disney has set the world on fire with the enormous Zootopia and, not content with that, released another huge hit with Moana, granting them a big presence at the Oscars this year. While Disney does not usually release more than one film per year, it is certainly something they, and others like Dreamworks, are capable of.

In terms of animation, Kubo and the Two Strings felt like a breath of fresh air. There was a substantial physical heft and presence to the characters and locations respectively. It reminded me that, despite how advanced 3D rendering technology has become, seeing what you know are real, hand made objects (everything from clothes to sets) gives the film a verisimilitude that I cannot quite find in other animated works.

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I would highly recommend people to seek out this film on DVD and Blu-Ray, if not for the film alone, then certainly for the behind-the-scenes footage of the artisans at work.

I would highly recommend listening to School of Movies’ excellent discussion about this film! They are persistently entertaining and you will always learn something new.

Kubo and the Two Strings has flown under the radar for most, but I hope that at least the Academy will recognise the effort and commitment Laika continue to pour into their craft at this year’s Oscars event. For their sake, I wish Laika great success and recognition this year.

First Impressions: The Opening of Ex Machina

In this series, I break down and discuss what I consider to be some of the most important parts of any film: its opening. The opening scene of a film should demonstrate to the audience several key factors about that film: most commonly about the main character(s) and what’s happening in their lives. Ex Machina begins with the main character only and we see the world through his eyes.

As well as this, a film’s opening should present a reasonably accurate sense of the tone of the overall film; if it’s a horror movie, the opening should be just creepy enough; if it’s a sci-fi film, there should be a tease of highly advanced technology to be seen later.

Certain films are excellent at introducing the audience to the many different aspects of their characters and world with little effort, while others may struggle to even address the right tone of their film. Some films can introduce what they need with surprising efficiency and speed!

Ex Machina (2015):

 

This time, I’m going to discuss the recent science-fiction thriller Ex Machina, directed and written by Alex Garland.

This film is an excellent exercise in brevity and depth; a lot can be picked up from our central characters without relying on excessive dialogue or character’s preaching to one another.

The subtleties of their expressions, they ways in which they react and how their true colours slowly bloom are what tells us what we need to know about them. Nary a word is wasted in this film.

The film’s desire for efficiency is clear right in the opening, which may be one of the shortest film intros I’m likely to discuss here. In fact, it might be one of the most efficient and succinct openings to any film I’ve seen!

The film opens with Caleb working away at his desk in a bustling, hi-tech office surrounded by trendy co-workers as they mill about in the kitchen and at their stations. Caleb is in his own bubble; headphones on, coding away and separate from his noisy surroundings.

Without notice, Caleb receives an excited and congratulatory email. Based on the reactions of his co-workers we can assume that this is something big; everyone responds instantly and messages jump in left and right to applaud Caleb. In all the commotion, Caleb himself does not jump up in excitement, or even really look around all that much. His headphones are still plugged in and he experiences this elation within himself.

Ex Machina relies on little moments like this; actions that might not speak volumes but still indicate to us how a character chooses to behave in a given situation. As the film progresses, we steadily learn more about Caleb and it is fair to say he is more than a little introverted.

After this swift introductory scene, the film then immediately cuts to a helicopter flying over vast, undisturbed natural vistas. With forests, mountains, and glaciers as far as the eye can see, we understand that Caleb is far from civilisation, which is ironic considering he is on his way to meet possibly one of the most technocratic people on Earth.

This scene was originally longer and expanded upon Caleb’s reasons for being here as well as the pilot’s own personal experiences. Understandably, this added little to the film and was replaced with the more concise scene we are left with. It’s worth noting that this is in fact the first dialogue scene in the film. Caleb simply asks:

Caleb: “How long until we get to his estate?”
Pilot: “We’ve been flying over his estate for the past two hours!”

This short exchange tells us so much, not only about how long they have been travelling but by simultaneously informing us about the wealth of the man Caleb is going to meet. Caleb is actually on his way to meet his employer, Nathan.

In the world of Ex Machina, this information subtly suggests that, for a man in this day and age to have such a vast and isolated natural estate, Caleb’s employer could possibly be the wealthiest person on the planet, if not among them.

Of course, for the purpose of the plot, it makes sense for Nathan to isolate himself and his work from the rest of civilisation in order to maintain privacy. The sheer extent he has clearly gone through in order to maintain such privacy though, begs curiosity.

Caleb is left in an open field and must walk the rest of the way himself. After what we can imagine to be quite the nature walk, Caleb finally arrives at the home of his boss where the two meet and the film really begins.

This film’s opening, though fast, sets up a lot of ideas in the mind of the audience. It is easy for a lot of the subtleties to fly past us but Alex Garland’s excellent script means that the average viewing will not leave you out of the loop.

The extra details are there for those who want to look deeper, but nothing crucial is unfairly hidden. It’s clear that Alex Garland respects his audience enough to not talk down to them but neither does he leave anything too high out of reach.

If you’d like to hear more about Ex Machina, consider paying a visit to the wise and charming Cinephilia Anonymous podcast for some deeper insights!

If time is of the essence, Ex Machina is an excellent example of how an opening can introduce what you need without taking up too much time, all the while building up valuable anticipation and curiosity!

First Impressions: The Opening of Serenity

First Impressions is a series in which I break down and review what I consider to be one of the most important parts of any film: the opening. The opening of Serenity is certainly a great example of effective film intros!

When I say opening, I’m not specifically talking about a musical title sequence (think 007: James Bond or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) though I may cover that type  of opening in the future.

The opening scene of any film should demonstrate to the audience several key factors about that film: most commonly the main character(s) and the problems they’re experiencing within their lives.

As well as this, a film’s opening should present a reasonably accurate sense of the tone of the overall film; if it’s a horror movie, the opening should be creepy enough to clue us in; if it’s an action movie there will most likely be some flashy but not overly dangerous incident to resolve.

Some films may have more features to present, such as the historical setting or location (be it in London, New York, or even Mars) and some films will need to spend extra time clarifying their world, which is usually the practise of Science Fiction and Fantasy films.

Certain films are excellent at introducing audiences to the many different aspects of their characters and world with little effort, while others may struggle to even address the right tone of their film.

Pay close attention the opening of a film and see what the filmmakers are trying to tell you about their work. In some cases, very important details may be hidden in plain sight during the first few minutes of a film. Other times, the filmmakers want to surprise you completely and will hold off on certain points of information until the right moment.

Serenity (2005):

In this case, I want to discuss the opening scene of the film Serenity; the excellent cinematic follow-up to the cult space-western TV series Firefly! Now, if you have seen this film before, you may recall several different opening scenes and yes, you could say that there are actually three distinct introductions. The particular scene I would like to discuss in detail however, is the last of these; a three-minute-long tour of the titular ship, Serenity, and its many charming crew members. The three introductory scenes all blend together quite seamlessly however, as one style flows naturally into the next.

Serenity opens with a voice-over introducing us to the conditions of the world; a solar system controlled by a unifying ‘Alliance’ that recently waged war with the underdog ‘Independents’. The speaker is then presented to us and we see a classroom with a younger main character in this flashback, we are then abruptly brought into the near-present and, after another short sequence to establish the villain, we land in the present day aboard the iconic spaceship ‘Serenity’.

 

This marks the beginning of the film’s true opening, where familiar characters from the TV series appear as we remember them and the film’s events can begin to flow sequentially.

The following scene is in fact one of the best openings I have seen in any film; it effectively and efficiently introduces us to almost every major character, their distinct personalities and their relationships with one another. As well as it’s narrative accomplishments, this scene is also a technical feat as the entire 3-minute sequence is one unbroken shot and has no edits or cuts between conversations and locations.

The Camera and Set:

The ‘Single Take’ or “Oner” is a widely-celebrated technique among fans of film study, but even bad films use this technique and the use of a “Oner” should not be particularly worth celebrating of its own accord. In this film however, the single take is effective not only for introducing us clearly to each character in turn but also for giving the audience a seamless tour of the entire ship.

During this opening scene, the camera smoothly follows Mal through the ship as he seeks out each member of the crew. The camera moves from compartment to compartment through the ship; as Mal walks from the bridge down to the kitchen, past the engine room and into the medical bay and finally arriving in the cargo hold. This effectively makes the ship ‘Serenity’ feel more like a real, lived-in space. The audience can see for themselves how the whole set fits together and can finally explore the crew’s humble home. When establishing your characters, seeing them in their day-to-day activities, as well as where they eat lunch and rest, can solidify the characters as real people in the minds of the audience.

The Characters:

The scene begins with Mal, the ship’s captain, at the bridge of the ship where he stands impatiently over the ship’s spirited pilot, ‘Wash’. As the ship is experiencing some severe turbulence during re-entry, Mal makes his way through the ship to inform the crew of their potentially deadly descent. Engaging with each character briefly, we gain a strong understanding of their personalities and relationships with such natural dialogue and not a hint of exposition (unnecessary dialogue).

To facilitate having to introduce each character to potential new viewers (while also bringing each character into the spotlight), the screenwriters developed this dangerous re-entry in order to move Mal through the entire ship with purpose and haste.

This is a more natural excuse (considering the dangers of space travel) than have him lazily take a stroll of his own familiar ship for some other reason. Apart from introducing some tension early into the film, we see characters dealing with the daily stresses of space travel and reacting to potential death in their own way. Some are anxious, some are sarcastic and some (former soldiers Mal and Zoe) are quite collected!

The Dialogue:

One of the most fondly remembered aspects of the original Firefly is its script. The charming, snappy and unpretentious dialogue between characters was one of the main charms of the show and naturally it continues in Serenity.

The creative set-up of this scene is one that allows for a fluid single take, a full tour of the ship, some potential danger and fast, emotional dialogue between the crew. Each character’s introduction gives us a clue as to who they are and how they deal with stress. For instance,

Wash: “…this landing is gonna get pretty interesting.”
Mal: “Define interesting!”
Wash (calmly): “‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die’?”

Smoothly introducing some of the crew’s relationships, we meet Zoe, Mal’s fellow war veteran, where they say:

Mal: “Zoe, is Wash gonna straighten this boat out before we get flattened?”
Zoe: “Like a downy feather, sir. Nobody flies like my mister!”

Simple exchanges like this are used effectively and not just as flavour-text (dialogue used primarily to convey tone and atmosphere), introducing simple concepts for the audience to keep in their minds.

These are simple examples but it shows that the screenwriters knew what useful titbits to plant in hasty conversations like this. This frees up later conversations from having to reference pre-existing knowledge. The series and indeed the film contains a lot of this style of writing, which suits the fast-talking, hard working nature of this world’s characters.

Serenity opens swiftly, introduces what it needs to without mystifying new viewers or boring the old ones. It has many different elements to establish; an inter-planetary society, over 9 unique characters, an established history of events from the TV series and only 2 hours to conclude it all.

You can see the opening for yourself here!

To hear more about this great film, go and visit School of Movies for their excellent review!

As far as openings go, Serenity is both dramatic and witty while effectively setting up the beloved characters for one last show. Whenever you have a handful of colourful characters to establish, Serenity is a good place to learn.

Firefly crew, serenity cast