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.

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.

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.

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.

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 raceĀ  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.

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.

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.

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.

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