Monday, January 30, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

It’s hard to imagine a film animation studio that has a near-perfect record and not immediately think of Pixar. But I’d like to shift northward from sunny California, to the forested city of Hillsboro, Oregon where Laika Studios resides. What Pixar is to 3-dimensional digital animation, Laika is to stop-motion. Now in its 12th year, Laika helped to create The Corpse Bride, and went on to release 4 films of its own: Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and today’s subject, Kubo and the Two Strings. Each prior feature-length film they’ve been involved with has been nominated for an Oscar, an amazing accomplishment for a new studio. They’ve all had a separate director, critical acclaim, and masterful artistic design. Enter Kubo and the Two Strings.

Set in an alternate version of Japan, the movie begins with a child telling the story of a quest. A heroic figure seeks fabled armor that will help him defeat the Moon King, a god who has wronged him and his family. The narrator, Kubo, soon finds that this story is becoming his own, as he must retrieve the armor to defend himself from the Moon King.

So, where does this film stand with the studio’s legacy of films before it? Travis Knight, making his debut as a director, was involved as a lead animator in all 3 of the studio’s other movies. Each of them scored an Oscar nomination, and Kubo and the Two Strings earned 2, including the studio’s first bid for Visual Effects. It also scored the highest of their films on Metacritic (84) and Rotten Tomatoes (97%). But I’ll dispense with the results, and focus on why it received such a response.

First of all, this film takes the Laika standard into new light. The previous three films made use of darker settings, grungier faces, and warped architecture, though all of it was impeccable eye candy. Now, we’re handed pristine views, gleaming weapons, and even sparkling teeth! Musically, viewers were lifted high, invited to dance, play, wonder, fear, and triumph with the characters. Laika outdid themselves with this surprise film of the year, and simply looking at it was thoroughly new and enjoyable.

The performances given by Art Parkinson and Charlize Theron were fantastic and more than believable. This was Art’s first foray into voice acting for a major animated film, as far as I’m aware, but it seems to come naturally for him. Voicing the child of an incomplete family, who must gather the courage to live up to his father’s legacy, he portrays this well. Theron gives an immersive performance as Kubo’s guardian and aide. Without going into spoiling details, she nails it on the head. The most concern I have with this movie, however, is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. As the dim-witted Beetle, he definitely supplied the comic relief well, but that’s about as far as he went. Whenever he attempted to be more, it fell flat. His character needed to be far richer.

The richest part of this film, on the other hand, was the story of family. Even reflected in the title, Kubo is one string, and the other two are his parents, and with them together he plays his instrument. Every story he tells, they are there to tell it with him. His whole quest is to secure his place with them by defeating the Moon King. The conclusion to the film is one of compassion, strength, and the unity that family can create, depending on the actions within. Compassion, forgiveness, and love are very strong forces, and have a place in battle.

In conclusion, this film came together as a strong statement by Laika Studios that stop-motion animation is a current and beautiful art form. A well-assembled cast of voices brought this story to life in amazing ways, as did all the animators and riggers in no smaller regard. Gorgeous in so many ways, this film was among my favorites for the year. I recommend that everyone see it as soon as possible, no matter their age. I look forward to seeing what Laika has to offer in the future. But for now, family unites, compassion and forgiveness prevail, and the story is never truly over.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Music from the Motion Picture)

With the release of the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s seminal 13-novel series, I wished to return to the 2004 film that brought the Baudelaire misfortunes to the silver screen. Instead of discussing the film itself, where it shines and where it doesn’t, I want to focus on one of the best artistic components: the music. As of writing this, I haven’t yet seen the new series, to refrain from comparing it with the subject at hand.

Thomas Newman is no backwoods composer, and I feel that his work here should be recognized. Yes, the film let fans down in several ways, but this soundtrack did not. It carries the spirit of the Snicket legacy, immerses the listener fully within that world, and can stand alone as the storyteller for this dark tale.

Despite Jim Carrey’s antics in the film, the music carries the appropriate weight of tragedy and menace that Count Olaf is meant to embody. The Baudelaire children are a light that shines through that menace, but it’s often very hard to see that light. Their altercations are what sends this soundtrack full steam ahead into the tragedies, triumphs, grief and hope, each inevitable. In my opinion, Thomas Newman was the perfect choice to orchestrate this sonic narration.

When it comes to soundtrack design, I find there are often two components. There’s atmosphere (or environment): the concept work, background, or context. Secondly, there’s narration: subject, action, and interaction. An effective soundtrack, stripped of the film’s context, ought to have both of these in balance. A composition of nothing but minimal background textures doesn’t cut it. All context, no focus. Likewise, narration without context becomes tiresome and an earsore. Take, for example, an action movie that doesn’t let up, is always running and smashing. It may appeal when paired with visuals but has no place on its own.

Newman knows how to marry these two components beautifully, and he’s done it time and again. Here, the context takes several forms. Olaf’s windchimes dotting the dead, desolate woods surrounding his decrepit house. Ferry bells clanging just off the dock of lachrymose lake. The wealth of knowledge and wild-natured excitement that could be found within the reptile room.

The narration fits in perfectly with the atmospheres, and here are a few examples.

  • An Unpleasant Incident Involving a Train - The children are trapped in a car parked on railroad tracks. You can hear a locomotive still far off, but you feel it through the shaking tracks as it barrels closer. Frenetic violins play, railroad bells clang, and tense guitar strings are plucked.
  • The overtly ridiculous presentation of “The Marvelous Marriage”, a play performed by buffoons, belies the sillier aspects of the film, but is still very enjoyable to hear. The usual suspects, accordion and tuba, dance around and poke fun at the stage.
  • And “The Letter That Never Came” features a Thomas Newman favorite, a moving piano melody with melancholic violins flowing in and out. This is the parents’ only manifestation through music, and all that the children have left of them. It communicates well their hopes and source of comfort: their memories of a happier life, and hope of a better one to come.

In conclusion, the music does Lemony Snicket more justice than the film did. It’s responsible for the environment and atmosphere I came to love when viewing it, and I’m glad that Thomas Newman left his mark on Snicket’s body of work.