We’re going back to animation this week and covering a couple of recently released films. One stop motion, and the other computer animated. This week’s films are:
Travis Knight – Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, and Chris Williams – Moana (2016)
I’m a big fan of animation, but I hadn’t gotten around to watching these two yet. They’re both very different films, and there’s plenty to talk about, so let’s get into it.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
This film is about a young boy with only one eye that has a magic guitar that allows him to manipulate paper. He uses it to wow the local villagers with stories where his origami figures come to life. But at home his life is very different. His mother comes in and out of a catatonic state, and constantly warns Kubo about his aunts and grandfather that want to kill him. When he breaks one of her rules, he discovers it’s true, and has to go on an adventure to find his father’s mystical armor and sword, things that have only been real in his stories before now.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop motion animated film. This means that the characters we see in the film are physical models that are manipulated frame by frame in order to create motion. It’s an incredibly painstaking process. The process has been around for a long time, and has been used in live action films like King Kong for decades. When done well, the process adds a sense of realism to animation, and gives the animator full control over the world. This allows them to create the world they want.
This film in particular is incredibly complex and intricate. During the film, I wasn’t sure if it was actually a stop motion animated film. Stop motion often has a quality to it that identifies it as stop motion, a jerkiness to the movement, or the way it’s staged, revealing that there must be borders around the outside of the frame. But this film is able to break past those constraints while keeping everything consistent. Birds fly through the air, giant skeletons walk around the same space as our main characters. We have monkeys and giant beetles that feel as real as the human characters. It’s an incredible accomplishment.
The film opens with Kubo’s origin story. We see his mother on a small raft on an angry sea in a storm. We hear Kubo giving some narration that seems unrelated to what’s happening on screen. As a giant wave is about to take on his mother, she pulls out a small three stringed guitar, and strums it, magic force ripping out and cutting the wave in two. But another wave comes up behind her and hits her, washing her to the shore. As she lands, we hear a baby’s cry, and realize that the pack on her back held a child. She crawls to him and pulls him away from the waves, rescuing him.
We see Kubo’s home life when he’s older. His mother is completely catatonic, and has to be led everywhere, and reminded to eat. He leaves her at the entrance to the cave where he leaves her while he goes into town. When he gets to town though, he stands in the middle of the town with his guitar, and begins his story. He plays his guitar and pieces of paper fly out of his backpack and turn into origami figures. They act out the story he’s telling. The town is totally enthralled. Everything else stops as the townspeople call out their favorite parts and play along.
The story he tells is of a famous samurai who goes searching for three important artifacts, a sword, armor and shield, that will allow him to defeat his arch enemy, the moon king. But when night begins to fall, Kubo stops the story and runs home. The crowd is upset, but this is a common occurrence, as Kubo has never finished a story.
We learn soon after that the story he is telling is based on the stories that his mother tells him in the evenings. In the evenings before bed, she is awake and active. We later learn that she was a powerful witch, and her sisters and father wish to blind Kubo, thereby making him a powerful dark figure. His mother must sacrifice herself in order to rescue Kubo when they come for him, and the film goes on from there, with Kubo meeting a talking monkey, and an anthropomorphized beetle, who seems to remember his father.
The rest of the film is a fantastic adventure that really needs to be experienced. It’s all about the power of storytelling and more importantly how we tell our own stories and make our own stories. Even the title of the film is incredibly significant. Throughout the film, we see that Kubo’s guitar has three strings, not two. The solution to this riddle is so powerful and perfectly crafted. I was blown away.
The story of this film is so intricate and wonderful. This is going to be a film that I revisit over and over again. The animation in particular is so smooth and realistic, I assumed I must be watching computer animation, rather than stop motion.
The character design is exceptional. The villains are truly scary. The non-human creatures feel real, and the human characters are caricatured, but still feel human. And the cinematography is exceptional. There are so many beautiful shots in this film of landscapes and vistas, it’s stunning.
There are a lot of potential messages you could pull from this film. One could be the power of storytelling. Kubo is a storyteller, that’s how he relates to the world. We could also look at this as a rite of passage. Kubo must live up to the sacrifices that his parents made for him, but also use that background to write his own story. I won’t spoil the end of the movie, but the final resolution of the film speaks strongly to the idea that your story isn’t set in stone, but you can change it, and that the people around you write your story as much as you write your own.
The studio behind this film also did Coraline, ParaNorman, and The BoxTrolls. This film is clearly the culmination of years of practice for the studio, producing an all-time classic.
This film tells the story of a young island girl, Moana, who is destined to be the chief of her island one day, even though her heart tells her to go out and explore the world beyond her island. One day, a darkness begins descending on her island, killing crops and fish. Her grandmother tells her that she has been chosen by the Ocean to travel to find the demigod Maui and return a gem he stole years ago from the island god Tefiti. She leaves on a grand adventure to save her island.
This is the latest film from Disney animation, and unlike our first film, this is a musical, with songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda, fresh off the spectacular Hamilton. The film is computer animated, and stunningly beautiful. In Disney films like this, we frequently get famous voice actors, and this film is no different, but there’s a twist here. The lead characters are all played by people from Pacific Island heritage. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the most famous name among the leads, but he’s also among the most famous Pacific Islanders in Hollywood. It’s a really nice touch. Moana is voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a newcomer, but an amazing talent.
The voice acting in this film is exceptional. Cravalho in particular is wonderful. She doesn’t feel like a character in a film, she feels like a real person. Her character is not always in control of situations, and is sometimes awkward and unsure, but she’s capable, and doesn’t give up. Even Dwayne Johnson, who hasn’t made a name as a voice actor is excellent. He even does his own singing, which is pretty impressive in a cast with some seriously great singers. He even holds his own. He’s essentially perfect casting for the pompous Maui, a demigod who sees himself as the reason humans have all of the wonderful things in their lives.
The film opens with us seeing the beginning of the darkness. Maui traveled to the island of Tefiti to steal her heart, which is a small stone, assuming he could bring it to the world so that they could create life on their own. But stealing the stone released the lava monster Tikal, and darkness started to spread over the world. This is revealed as a story that Moana’s grandmother is telling her and a group of children as a toddler. The others are horrified, but Moana is enthralled.
The first part of the film gives us Moana’s backstory and grounding. Showing us where she came from. We see a small toddler fascinated by the sea. Here the film introduces and important character. The Ocean itself. The ocean is Moana’s ally in this quest. Supporting her, guiding her, and protecting her. As a baby, Moana wanders out to the ocean, and it parts for her, drawing her further in with beautiful shells. Eventually, it offers her the Heart of Tefiti, which was dropped in it ages ago. But before it can give it to her, her father calls, and the ocean guides her back to shore.
In these early days, we see Moana look out at the sea longingly, but her father teaches her to be the new chief, on an island where no one ever leaves. No one ever even goes beyond the reef. There are a couple of contrasting songs here. One with Moana’s father teaching her how to run the island and giving us a sense of what she will need to do. The other focusing on Moana’s desire to explore the sea.
We also begin to see that the darkness has been reaching their island. Their coconuts have started to rot from the inside, and the fishermen aren’t bringing back any fish. In an impulsive moment, Moana decides to sail beyond the reef herself to see if she can find fish, but she can’t make it past the breakers and is washed back to shore, almost dying. After she is scolded, her grandmother reveals a major secret, showing her a cave full of ships. Moana learns that her ancestors were all voyagers, sailing over the seas, finding and populating new islands. This is wildly different from her world, where no one can leave the island. Her grandmother gives her the Heart of Tefiti and tells her she must find Maui, take him to Tefiti, and have him replace the Heart to stop the darkness.
As she’s leaving on her quest though, we get a great bit of symbolism. Her grandmother has a tattoo of a manta ray on her back, and she says she will come back as one. Just as Moana is about to leave, her grandmother falls ill, but tells her to go. As she is getting close to the breakers that almost killed her before, a spirit shaped like a manta ray comes along and pushes her past them.
So her adventure begins. There’s a great bit of business here where Moana is planning on how to ask Maui to come with her. She wants to make a grand gesture, seeing Maui as a hero. Unfortunately, Maui sees himself the same way. When she finally does meet him, his response is to reject her suggestion of going back to Tefiti entirely, and tries to trap her in a cave while he sails away with her boat. Moana here shows how capable she is, escaping and diving off a cliff to catch up to Maui. But this also shows that she’s not a superhero, missing her jump and falling into the water. But of course, the ocean is on her side and deposits her back on the boat, no matter how many times Maui tries to toss her off.
The relationship between Moana and Maui is the most important in the film, and it’s got a lot of depth. Maui is essentially the embodiment of the ‘refusal of the call’, while Moana is constantly pushing him to be better than he is. Meanwhile, Moana begins to see the value in Maui’s many lifetimes of knowledge, taking the opportunity to learn from him, particularly how to sail. Their relationship is symbiotic and helps them both.
There’s a lot of great moments and scenes in this film, leading to a really great climax. The animation in the film is also exceptional, smooth and realistic. The character models are generally realistic, except for Maui and the various animals and creatures that are caricatured. Moana feels so real and present in every scene. There’s a scene I particularly love where Moana and Maui are trying to recover his magic fish hook from a giant crab. Maui decides to use Moana as bait to distract the crab. Moana is not on board with the plan and walks out in an outfit of shiny shells practically rolling her eyes. It’s a really funny scene, but more than that, the body language of the animated character is completely perfect. We have dialogue, but we don’t need it to understand what’s happening in the scene.
Like Kubo and the Two Strings, this is an amazing film. The story is so well told and constructed.
The message of the film is similar to Kubo, in that the main character has to find a way to write her own story. The main difference is that Moana is more of a rebel. Kubo wants desperately to have his parents at his side, and know what it’s like to be loved as a son by them. Moana on the other hand is deeply loved by her parents. She is trying to make her own way in the world, and rediscover a forgotten past.
The film is beautiful, well acted, well animated, and a great story. I can’t say enough good things about this film, another all-time classic.
It was wonderful watching these two films together. While doing this blog, I’ve kind of learned that having two films that are too similar to each other isn’t always a great experience. There has to be some contrast. Of course, two much contrast just leads to a bizarre, disconnected experience.
But these two films have that perfect balance of contrast. Both are animated films, but in different styles. They have contrasting settings, and while the characters both have serious journeys to follow, they are such different characters, with such different journeys, that they really work together as a pair.
Sometimes it’s hard to write about films because there just isn’t much to say, but in this case, these films are really hard to write about because there’s so much to say. I just want to relay every scene and emotion to everyone, but the real answer is, just go watch them.
My semester is wrapping up. I’ve pretty much finished all of my responsibilities for the semester. That’s a pretty good feeling. So let’s see what we’re doing next week.
It’s December, that means we’re in Christmas movie territory. So to get us started, I’m going to ease us in with some non-traditional Christmas movies before we go full Christmas. Next week’s films are:
Joe Dante – Gremlins (1984)
John McTiernan – Die Hard (1988)
Some people might argue that one or both of these are not Christmas movies. But those people are wrong. We’ll talk next week.