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.

A Year in Posters: 2016

A poster can say a lot about a film, sometimes it can communicate more honestly than 3 and a half minutes of trailer footage. This selection of film posters have been chosen not just for their creative and eye-catching designs but also for the feelings they can draw out of the viewer.

Rather than haphazardly pasting every major actor in the film in a kind of Hollywood collage onto the poster and slapping on a title, these posters take that crucial step and really think about a unique way to present their film to the world.

I want to celebrate some of the posters from this year that tried something a little bit different. Amongst the reams of repetitive and identical poster designs that come out every year, this selection of film posters will showcase some of the most inspiring and bold creative choices taken in 2016.

Lo and Behold:

Film Poster for Werner Herzog film Lo and Behold

Werner Herzog’s film explores the human mind bound by modern technology and this image is both straightforwardly poignant and oddly relatable. The tangled web of cables and wires clearly demonstrate a confused, overwhelmed, and even imprisoned human kind. The isolated colour in this portrait works very well in highlighting that sometimes the only colourful aspect to modern IT can be the cables!

Lobster:

Film Poster for the Yorgos Lanthimos film Lobster

The noticeable empty space speaks volumes about the relationships we struggle to maintain as illustrated in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film. The man’s slightly bewildered expression as he tries to embrace something unseen is a small but important detail; eyes open, but unable to see. There is a noticeable lack of colour here too which implies an obvious emotional drought in the lives of these people.

Moonlight:

Film Poster for the barry Jenkins film Moonlight

Although I generally dislike the contemporary  practice of drawing in an audience simply through use of a face (a shortcut to empathy), this poster demonstrates that portraits can make for excellent images when doing something with the portrait.  Alex Hibbert, Ashton Summers and Trevante Rhodes’ faces merge seamlessly into one person in this striking, neon portrait that hints at a story spanning generations, yet is distinctly modern.

Free Fire:

Film Poster for the Ben Wheatley movie Free Fire

For a movie that has not actually been released yet, this poster for Ben Wheatley’s film perfectly ‘teases’ us with its incomplete figures. Six limbs stretch out from nowhere and point at the world, each with different clothing and identities. All colourful and energetic, these hands are almost punching the air with their weapons! It’s always nice to see a hand painted film poster, even if you’re trying to achieve a realistic look.

The Handmaiden:

Film Poster for the Chan-Wook Park movie The Handmaiden

Chan-Wook Park’s mysterious and twisting film is cleverly revealed to us in this maze-like landscape. While clearly referencing the Asian classical art style, it’s full of little details that will draw you into both the poster and the plot! Such a historically focused styled poster amidst modern Photoshops and photographs really makes this one stick out.

Star Trek Beyond:

Film Poster for the Justin Lin movie Star Trek Beyond

Certainly one of the more mainstream films compared to other films on this list; the iconic faces set in a brilliant cosmic glow definitely make this an eye catcher. Thankfully this poster chose not to be like other summer blockbuster film posters and while it obviously referencing the original Star Trek the Motion Picture, this design signifies a return to the style of the beloved original series.

Birth of a Nation:

Film Poster for the Nate Parker movie The Birth of a Nation

This poster for Nate Parker’s film immediately connects with the viewer so they understand precisely what is going on in this story. The obvious yet excellently connected imagery showcases a kind of poster style that could be imitated for years to come. The crowds of red figures lined up together, set against an old parchment background expertly convey the history and the pain behind this story. In terms of design, sometimes an obvious choice is the right one.

The Childhood of a Leader:

Film Poster for the Brady Corbet movie The Childhood of a Leader

A stark and haunting poster who’s leading figure may seem monstrous but upon closer inspection we discover the figure of a child. This suitable dark and ominous poster design fits Brady Corbet’s film perfectly as it delves into the monstrous ego that can awaken deep within a person.

La La Land:

Film Poster for the Damien Chazelle movie La la Land

Both musical and theatrical in its imagery, this poster for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land invites the viewer into a jazz filled world of excitement and drama. Certainly one of the most colourful posters you’ll see around, though the harsh black lines may suggest a either the bars of separation or the vast verticality of American city life.

Certain Women:

Film Poster for the Kelly Reichardt movie Certain Women

The hand drawn aesthetic to this poster suits the soft and natural tone of Kelly Reichardt’s film. While aiming for photorealism, it does at least try for a soft and approachable design to draw the viewer into the lives of these particular ladies. Even in monochrome, the poster does not feature any predominantly dark areas in the shading, placing each of these characters in more or less equal footing.

Christine:

Film Poster for the Antonio Campos movie Christine

Antonio Campos and Rebecca Hall’s film tells the harrowing tale of the on-air suicide of Christine Chubbuck and this poster presents to us the conflicting nature of TV life. The decision to go for a portrait photograph of Christine suitably highlights her fame, while also changing this up with the television set replacing her face. Appropriately, the TV weighs on her shoulders and we see the melancholic face of this national news personality, cleverly highlighting both the inner isolation and faux projection of a person.