How to Not Make A Disney Movie: Kubo and the Two Strings

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

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2016 has been a spectacular year for animated movies. Not really for anything else, but animation is at least on a roll. The year started off with Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia, and has recently had strong entries like Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets. Later this year will be Moana, Sing, and Storks, which all look solid to me.

Now, along comes Kubo and the Two Strings, which I went into cold. I usually do research beforehand on all the movies I see (i.e, watch trailers, research the studio and talent names, etc.). With Kubo, all I knew was that it was from Laika entertainment, and starred Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa!).

I was a little nervous because so far I haven’t loved any of Laika’s stuff. Laika is the only studio right now doing stop-motion films. They are known for being dark, creepy, and very artistic. Laika is the Martin Scorsese of animated movies. Everyone respects them, they always get nominated, but Pixar always wins anyway.

So, in a year of great animated movies, will Kubo and the Two Strings ruin the streak of coming in #2? Or will it represent proudly and possibly win Best Animated Oscar?

Kubo and the Two Strings begins with Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a young boy who had his left eye taken from him by the Moon King, his grandfather, in an act of revenge against Kubo’s parents. His father was lost, and now Kubo spends his days taking care of his sickly mother. She warns him to never go out after dark, or the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will be able to see him and take his other eye.

One day Kubo sees the people of his village celebrating their ancestors and praying to them. He goes with the group to a river and makes his own monument for his father, and tries praying to it. He doesn’t get a response, and starts to go home angry, when he suddenly realizes it is after dark. The Sisters (Rooney Mara), henchmen of the Moon King, attack Kubo. His mother comes to save him, giving up her life, and telling Kubo to go find a suit of armor that will protect him. He is joined on his quest by Monkey (Charlize Theron), whom his mother sends to guide him, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who used to serve Kubo’s father.

Right off the bat, the film warns you it is going to be dark, and it is not going to take its themes of death and loss lightly. In just this short intro, two people have died, and a child has had his eye removed. This is not a little-kids film, the deaths portrayed being more Grimm Brothers than Disney. There was some crying in my theater. I went with my family and two elementary school kids, and both talked about how scary the film was afterwards. I myself was a little freaked out by the villains in this film. Laika doesn’t mess around. That is what makes it work so well.

Speaking of Disney, there are some things I really appreciate about this film that I wish Disney (representing all mainstream animation) would take notes on. To be clear, I enjoy Disney movies, they’re some of my favorites. But, I also have a lot of beef with them as a studio and the formulas I see emerging in their newest movies (impress me, Moana). Here is a film that does anti-Disney so well, and it works wonders.

What Kubo and The Two Strings does that no other animated movie so far this year has done:

  • Some of the most breathtaking, painstakingly detailed animation that I have ever seen. I saw this film in 2D, yet it felt 3D with its textures, colors, and worldbuilding.
  • The quiet moments. Films this year have had a few quiet moments, scenes that focused on worldbuilding, character development, and mythology more than action or comedy, but not many. Kubo takes every opportunity to sit the characters down and have them talk, banter, and share stories.
  • A plot with stakes. A plot that lets people die, doesn’t give us boring fake-outs, and one that commits to its premise.
  • Save for Finding Dory, it is one of the most family-affirming films of the year, and shows how we all need parents and/or mentors in our lives.
  • Despite some of its Eastern-religious themes, the film explores how we relate to the dead, and the people (God) put in our lives to guide us.
  • Every. Single. Action. Sequence is memorable. They are all different, they all use their locations creatively, reveal character, and advance the plot.
  • A beautiful use of score.
  • It made me feel the feels without manipulating my emotions.

Besides the breathtaking animation (describing it here doesn’t do it justice), the voice acting is a highlight. Charlize Theron brings a sweet, yet fierce, wit that really works in the film. I loved every second her character was on screen, and the emotion portrayed with her voice. Matthew McConaughey gives it his all, and while at first I was apprehensive of his character, I grew to like him more and more. However, his very-American country twang sounds out of place sometimes more than others, but I appreciated the energy and enthusiasm in the performance. Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes all do admirable work too as their respective characters. Maybe one day we’ll get Japanese voice actors to play Japanese characters, but since this is animation and the cast does a fine job, I’ll let it slide.

I can’t recommend Kubo and The Two Strings enough. Suicide Squad got you down? Remakes making you bored? Want to see something different? This film will do the trick.

-Madeleine D

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When You’re Too in Love With Your Own Idea: Suicide Squad

Warning: Spoilers Below

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You had one job, Suicide Squad. One job.

After the catastrophe that was Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. and DC studios had one last hope for 2016: Suicide Squad, the movie with an all-star cast about a group of bad guys that save the world. This movie was supposed to have everything moviegoers like. Superheroes! Supervillains! Hot new stars! Style! Pizazz! A slick new album starring the biggest bands of today’s hits! The Joker!

The stage was set for the biggest potential hit of the summer. While film after film let people down, there was still an attitude of, “Well, at least we have Suicide Squad.”

If there’s one things we now know, it’s that high expectations =  disappointment.

Suicide Squad starts out with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), evil granddaughter of Nick Fury, pitching an idea to some government heads. What if we had a group of supervillains that could do the stuff superheroes couldn’t do? Superheroes have moral codes. Let’s get some bad guys who can do the dirty work.

It’s an interesting idea, and that’s the kicker with this movie. It is full of interesting, out-of-the box ideas that have amazing creative potential. What if Harley’s gun says love and hate? What if El Diablo tells his backstory through flames? What if we have an awesome soundtrack? What if we make the Joker a mob-boss character to update and modernize him? What if Captain Boomerang has a… pink… unicorn fetish..??? (maybe not the best idea, whatever)

However, that is also the film’s biggest weakness. The small stylistic details of this film are fantastic. The overall movie is messy, chaotic, and boring. The only explanation I can make for this is that David Ayer, the director, got too caught up in his little spurts of genius that he forgot to make a coherent movie with a story.

Why does the story fail? Here’s the rest of the plot. After Amanda Waller gives baseball-card origin story intros (i.e, a still frame giving quick intros to the characters and a flashback) to the two biggest stars, Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and name drops the others, the government says yes. When you live in a world where Batman and Superman destroy cities and kill people in the name of justice, you can basically justify anything.

So Amanda Waller goes to the Belle Reve prison and introduces us to each of the characters with a theme song playing in the background. When you see Deadshot hitting a punching bag, you get a sample of “House of The Rising Sun” (can you guess where the prison is located, maybe “down in New Orleans”?). Then we see Harley Quinn doing gymnastics, and hear “You Don’t Own Me.” It’s perfect because she’s a strong independent woman. Get it? No? Here’s a shot of her butt to distract you. Yay girlpower!

So on and so forth. Once the team is assembled, with a cameo by Slipknot, a certified redshirt, and the only lines of dialogue you’ll hear from Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, and Katana for a while, they are sent into the city. The city looks exactly like a normal DC city, one devoid of life, light, color, and hope.

Why must they go into the city? If you’ve seen The Avengers, Ghostbusters, etc, you know there’s a monster creating a portal in the city that creates a faceless, bloodless army. In this case, the monster is Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an evil spirit that invades mild-mannered archeologist June Moone.

The first part of this movie is fast-paced and jumpy, but it works. It has a style, and I admire that. I was enjoying the film. Then comes the middle. The middle is all about getting to the portal in the city and destroying bad guys along the way, but the film makes no effort to make that interesting. We never understand what these faceless soldiers are or their strengths and weaknesses. We never understand why June Moone and Rick Flag are in love. We never understand why after an hour and a half of not talking to anyone, El Diablo calls the squad his family. We don’t understand why Joker and Harley are in love, except that they are both crazy. This middle section relies on what the director thinks audiences think is interesting, which is half-executed, lazily repetitive action sequences that don’t do anything except move the squad a little towards point B. The style of the first part of the film vanishes.

The whole film plays like a video game. Introduce the characters. Choose which character you want to be (Deadshot or Harley). Joker cameo! Curveball. Move towards portal. Fight. Take a break. Exchange one-liner. Fight. Get in elevator. Fight. Leave elevator. Joker cameo. One-liner. Get to portal. Power up. Each shot only lasts 5-10 seconds, each scene no longer than a minute.

The film sells its audiences on its bizarre trailers and the idea that bad guys get to have more fun. This begs the question: What makes a bad guy more fun? Is it the gun wielding, murder-fest? Because if so, this movie delivers in an untimely, tone-deft way. Is it because bad guys get the one-liners and tough talk? If you want that, head over to Stark Tower, because there are no memorable lines here. Do we like bad guys because they appeal to our own flawed character? If there is something to be said for the DC movies so far, it is that it makes its heroes more morally ambiguous. To foil those characters, these villains must be completely bad. In this film, though, they aren’t. They want to be normal, in a wet blanket sort of way, and they can’t commit to being completely evil. Will Smith never lets Deadshot be unlikable. Harley Quinn tells El Diablo to wear his tragic, murderous backstory on his sleeve, and yet her perfect ending is to be a housewife with curlers in her hair, taking care of a baby and the Joker. These “villains” are more heroic than bad, at least by this cinematic universe’s standards, so why should we think they’re more fun anyway?

If the film decided to go into depth on any topic, it would be a much better film. Explain to me the psychology of a villain. Show me how messed up people can bond. Tell me why even bad guys can be better than the good guys, and the frailty of those labels. Instead, the film just insults the audience’s intelligence over and over again, giving us no message and getting mad we don’t get its “high artistic vision.”

Now I know that there was studio meddling involved. David Ayer has confirmed there were 6-7 cuts of this film before this theatrical version. However, as the director, he has to take responsibility for what this film is, which is a film that had potential but poor execution. When the film was finished I was bored, exhausted, annoyed, and saddened all at the same time. I can’t imagine what it is like for DC comic books fans, who see their favorite characters made into racist and sexist stereotypes, lacking the depth and interest of their on-page counterparts. My message to the Suicide Squad team? Enjoy your ideas, but make sure they are good ones, and be sure you can actually deliver, or else you will have an empty gun-shell of a movie.

-Madeleine D

Kleenex Shortage Points to Dory

TULSA, OK- Since the release of Pixar’s Finding Dory, the tissue-paper company Kleenex has had a product shortage.

“They’re definitely related,” Parent company Kimberly-Clark CEO Thomas J. Falk said. “We had similar numbers when Inside Out, Toy Story 3, and Up came out.”

Finding Dory Kleenex

When we talked to Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, he just shrugged. “That’s what we hope will happen. In all our movies, we try to have a really emotional core. Like, super emotional. We have test audiences cry into buckets, and if they don’t fill the buckets, we scrap the scene and add a death or animal farm and holocaust imagery. If a voice actor doesn’t cry while recording, we also take note. Once, an animator got so emotional while animating, we had to send him home early because he got water in the computer. That was the main computer for Cars 2.”

Kleenex said they are not upset with Pixar. “We love the business,” Falk said. “We can’t complain. This has been the biggest surge in business this year save for the weird shortage on July 4th this year in Oklahoma.”

Pixar’s next movie will be Cars 3, much to Falk’s reported disappointment.

-Madeleine D

 

[Editorial Note: This post is satire, and is thus fake, and exists basically to make you laugh]

So That’s What My Hamster is Doing While I’m Away: The Secret Life of Pets

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With the number of animated movies these days revealing the truth to us about the secret life of our household when we’re not around, it’s a wonder more people don’t quit their jobs so they can stay at home and catch their household possessions in action.

As we found out with Toy Story, Flushed Away, Bolt, and The Aristocats, our toys and pets have lives of their own. The Secret Life of Pets is here to bring us another story from that world.

The film is about Max (voiced by Louis C.K), a spoiled yet lovable dog that has an unshakable bond with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max lives a comfy life, split between being with Katie, and when she is gone, being friends with the fellow pets next door. Everything is great until one day, when Katie brings home a big, unruly dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max tries to get rid of Duke, only to find himself and Duke lost in the city, and at the mercy of a vicious pet gang led by a savage bunny named Snowball (scene-stealer Kevin Hart).

The Secret Life of Pets’ plot is a tried and true staple of kids’ movies, but that in itself doesn’t create a winner. What creates a winner is the film itself, and The Secret Life of Pets does a great job of taking the elements that work in this sub-genre and making the whole movie about these things. For example, the best parts of the things-that-don’t-talk-now-talk stories are the secondary characters we meet along the way, the bonding that happens between the two main characters, and the adventure. The Secret Life of Pets hits all these marks.

The secondary characters in The Secret Life of Pets are the most fun and interesting I’ve seen in this type of movie since Toy Story. There are a lot of characters to be sure, making me wish for more screen time for some of them, but they all add something. None of them were annoying or useless. Whether they were there for visual gags, or witty dialogue, or animal jokes, each character had a place to shine. The bonding between Max and Duke worked. Duke’s backstory is heartbreaking, and the bonding seemed earned. Max learns a lesson, and so does Duke. That’s a solid message, even if it has been done before.

The adventure through New York City is enchanting. It can be chaotic, silly, and sometimes long, but it is always creative. Alleyways, sewers, cars, streets, building tops, and fire escapes all become exciting props for this cast to use.

The biggest flaws in the movie aren’t anything new for this type of film. The pacing can be wonky sometimes. There are some unnecessary butt jokes that are becoming a staple of Illumination Entertainment. The film doesn’t have any deeper meaning than “be nice to people that annoy you and don’t judge.” There is not one, not two, not three, but four scenes where an animal drives a car (and you thought Finding Dory was bad).

For its flaws though, I had a smile on my face the whole time. I laughed out loud. I want a sequel starring Kevin Hart’s crazy bunny. I would easily watch this movie again. This is a great choice for families. It will entertain kids, make parents smile, and maybe make you hug your pet one more time before walking out the door. It’s a celebration of fun, summer, and our loved ones (furry or not), and that’s not something to dismiss.

-Madeleine D

Ghostbusters (2016): It’s Not Bad For The Reasons You Think It’s Bad

For this review, I’m going to steal the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

So you saw Ghostbusters

Yep.

First off, have you seen the original? Because that one is the best.

I watched it right before I saw the new one. And… well, to be honest, I didn’t love it.

*gasp*

I’m sorry. I know, blasphemy. I thought it was fine. Billy Murray was great. It was creative, and should be appreciated for being one of the first of its kind. But I wasn’t in love. The film uses tropes, silly effects, some lame jokes, and the world-building and setting up of the story is rushed or nonexistent. Maybe I can’t appreciate it as much because I don’t have the nostalgia factor, but it just didn’t grab my attention.

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Fine, it’s your opinion. I heard there was some craziness surrounding this movie before it was even released. My feed blew up with angry tweets, and didn’t Leslie Jones just make the news for something twitter-related?

You’re right, it was crazy. The minute Sony announced they were going to reboot the beloved franchise with an all-new female team, the internet went beserk. Suddenly, these well-liked actresses where the four horseman of the apocalypse, about to wipe every man off the face of the earth with their feminazi ideas and girl power. Suddenly the original was a modern Citizen Kane, and must be protected at all costs. This movie is a specific attack on everything America stands for! Women? They can’t be funny or keep our interest! They don’t need to be represented. They’re only 50 percent of the population and movie-going audience! Where’s my eighth Batman reboot?

You sound bitter.

I am. Here’s the thing. Women have had to put up with being the sexy secretary or girlfriend in movies for years. Rarely are they the main heroes. So Hollywood decided, hey, let’s see if doing the exact opposite, making only women the heroes and the men the sexy secretaries and boyfriend, will work. So now we’ve gone from 0-100. The ideal situation would be if there were male and female ghostbusters. But I’m not surprised Hollywood can’t do middle ground yet. I think if this movie worked, then it would be a step in the right direction to getting that balance.

So… did the movie work? Are we going to see more female-only franchises?

I don’t think we’ll see any more female-only franchise for a while, because the movie didn’t work and it isn’t making enough money.

So you didn’t like it. Is it preachy? Is it all about girl-power?

Not at all. The problem is that it is a really bland movie. It is not spectacularly funny, or even a good action film. It doesn’t make any real points about women, and while it caters to the female gaze for a change, it doesn’t make men feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t do much of anything.

Then why is everyone overreacting so much? A lot of people seemed threatened by the very existence of this film.

Any man with any amount of skin will be able to get over this movie. There’s maybe one or two jokes aimed at men, but none of them are malicious or preachy. The whole movie is so bad and nonthreatening, that it really does look silly in hindsight that anyone got upset about it. The 1984 original still exists. Go watch that if this one makes you sad.

So does the fact that the movie was bad mean that women really aren’t as funny as-

Stop right there. No.

But-

The truth is, because there are so few female-centric franchises and movies, it means every time one comes out it has to represent the whole female population, which is ridiculous. (And this doesn’t just go for lady-movies, but also any film centered around people of color.) No movie should have to bear that kind of weight. Yes, this movie wasn’t good. But most recent reboots aren’t, and that is where the problem lies, not in its on-screen talent.

Why does the movie suck then?

Before you reboot a franchise, you need to ask yourself (if you consider yourself an artist and not just a money-hungry Hollywood exec), Why am I rebooting this? What am I going to add to this brand? What will I change? What am I trying to achieve? Apparently, Sony and director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids) did not ask themselves these questions. I think the creative meeting went something like this:

Sony Exec #1- We want to jump on the 80’s reboot train. Let’s remake Ghostbusters.

Paul Feig: Okay. As an artist, I want to know how we’ll make it different.

Sony Exec #2- I heard Frozen and The Hunger Games are doing good. Those star girls.

Paul Feig- Ohh, I like it. I’ve directed several great female-led comedies. This could be a creative, unique choice! Now let’s discuss what else we’ll change-

Sony Exec #1- Eh, we’ll finish this meeting later.

(after Sony announces the reboot, and the internet presses the self-destruction button)

Sony Exec #1- (holding a bottle of wine) So…. that went badly. (chugs)

Paul Feig- We can solve this. We just need to make this a really good movie.

Sony Exec #2- No! We need to make a generic, almost scene-by-scene remake of the original and play it safe.

Paul Feig- But-

Sony Exec #1 and #2- (still drinking) NO!

That’s more or less what happened.

The movie is a scene-by-scene remake?

Basically. All the original plot points are there. The only big difference between the two films, besides the gender-swapping of all the characters, is the absence of a Sigourney Weaver/Dana character and instead the villain is just an angry little man who creates ghosts and possesses people.

So yes, it lacks in plot. The original wasn’t much more than an extended SNL skit to be fair. However, the first at least has some funny moments. The new one has a few jokes that made me grin, but most of the time I groaned. Considering the talent involved- Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth (who really should be cast in more comedic roles) somehow aren’t able to elevate the material… or make better material. The film seems like a lot of the jokes were originally improvised, but were only funny on set and no one checked if they translated to the film well.

Is it true that Leslie Jones’s character was a racist stereotype?

I’m not the leading authority on that. I would suggest checking out other reviews by African-American film critics to really decide. However, I would say that Leslie Jones has branded herself with the “big, sassy, and loud black woman” type of humor. She’s been doing it on SNL for a while now, so it’s not surprising her role is written that way. It is a stereotype, and some people might think that is racist. However, it does not at all excuse the racist hate she was shown on Twitter. For what it’s worth, the group I went to see the movie with all enjoyed her performance, singling her out with Kate McKinnon as their favorite parts of the film. I thought she came off as very likeable, along with the rest of the cast.

Okay, the cast is likeable. Are there any other positives?

As a female viewer, there were little things here and there that really struck me as normal. Completely and utterly normal. There was very little “cool factor” here. These were real women doing real women stuff (in addition to, you know, busting ghosts). The fact that that stood out to me is a commentary itself on movies today. This film is also more family friendly (although it is still rated PG-13, so not for young kids). It doesn’t have all the sexual innuendo of the original. And like I said, there were some good jokes and ideas put forth. It just overall didn’t do anything for the Ghostbusters brand. Nothing was really added. No new developments were made.

Should I see it?

It’s not a must see, and I can’t really recommend it as good entertainment or even a fun movie. However, I think if you have young girls and you want them to see role models in movies, this could be a good choice. Even though the movie isn’t great, I hope I see some little kids dressed as ghostbusters for Halloween. That will make it worth it.

-Madeleine D