Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Kubo" and "Miss Peregrine"

Still catching up on reviews. I decided two late summer kids' films from last year deserved some spotlighting, though I wasn't entirely pleased with either. However, both of them feature some strong efforts from talented people, and there are never enough good kids' films.

Let's start with "Kubo and the Two Strings," the latest stop-motion wonder from the animators at Laika. the studio that gave us "Coraline" and "Paranorman." The story takes place in ancient Japan, where a one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) looks after his nearly catatonic mother, who fled from Kubo's evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), when Kubo was a baby. Kubo spends his days working as a storyteller, using magic to make origami figures and animals act out stories as he tells them. At night, he and his mother never go out, so that the Moon King won't find them and take Kubo's remaining eye. However, one night Kubo breaks the rules, and has to go on a quest for a magical suit of armor, with a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) as traveling companions.

As with all Laika productions, "Kubo" is a lovely thing to look at, full of handcrafted wonders. There's a fight with a giant skeleton puppet and a voyage on an origami paper galleon among the highlights. I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Monkey and Beetle, who provide the bulk of the laughs and the fun. There are a lot of great ideas here, loads of visible effort put into the production, nobody cut any corners. However, "Kubo" has a much darker and emotionally fraught story than it appears at first glance. The other Laika films have tread into this territory before, with some great results, but "Kubo" pushes further. Grief and loss are major themes, and I'd be hard pressed to call the ending a happy one. However, director Travis Knight handles the tricky material very carefully, and orchestrates some powerful, memorable moments.

Unfortunately, as much as I appreciate all this, and as much as I wanted to like the film, it didn't win me over in the end. As good as many of the pieces are, the narrative is very uneven and oddly paced. There were multiple times when it felt like he story had skipped ahead over exposition, while other scenes ran too long. I imagine a lot of small children pestering their parents over the questionable mechanics of how certain things happened in the story. Also, I had a lot of trouble with the Japanese cultural elements, which were all handled more or less respectfully, but still felt watered down and haphazard next to something like "Kung Fu Panda." The worldbuilding wasn't as tight as it should have been, and frankly suggests a lot of willy-nilly incorporation of Japanese elements that just looked or sounded cool. The Moon King, confusingly, was given the name Raiden, the name of the Japanese god of lightning.

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" has similar problems with its worldbuilding, though much more minor. The big issue here is with how the rules of how the magic in this world operates, which wouldn't be such a stumbling block if the film didn't put so much emphasis on it. Our hero is an ordinary Florida teenager named Jake (Asa Butterfield), whose beloved grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) dies under mysterious, violent circumstances. Learning that Abe's old stories of growing up in a children's home full of fantastical people might be true, Jake and his doubtful father (Chris O'Dowd) travel to the remote Welsh island of Cairnholm. There Jake discovers what happened to headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her brood of "Peculiar" gifted children. And he finds a new enemy in the sinister Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and a new interest in the lovely Emma (Ella Purnell) too.

There's quite a bit more to the story, and several more important cast members too, but I think it's best to let the viewer discover these for themselves. "Miss Peregrine" is an odd film, long and meandering, with a story that takes a good while to properly get going. The trip is worth taking, though, especially if you're a Tim Burton fan. This is a return to form for him in many ways, with a lot of nods to older cinema and whimsical storybook ghoulishness. The art direction is gorgeous, and there are a lot of wonderful details, from the period designs of the various "Peculiars" to little things like the sound design during a rooftop chase sequence. Burton's style hasn't translated well into CGI before, but that's not the case here. And best of all, the film is legitimately spooky and frightful, though not too intense for most children to enjoy.

I'm not familiar with the book this was based on, but I'd be interested in how convoluted the plotting was compared to the film. Jane Goldman's scripting is pretty good, but the pacing could use some work, and she seems to get utterly tripped up by some of the more complicated elements involving time travel and time loops. The ending is also terribly brisk, especially after it took ages to get Jake to the island and to introduce most of the major characters. Still, as Tim Burton films go, especially those aimed at children, this is his most successfully executed one in a while. The "Peculiars" are similar, but distinct from similar cinematic oddballs, and there are some good performances in the mix. Asa Butterfield, I'm sorry to say, does not give one of them, too stiff to give Jake much soul. Ella Purnell, however, nearly makes up for it.

All in all, both movies get points for ambition and for getting a lot of things right. There's a lot of room for improvement though, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the next Laika and Burton films go.

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