A Christmas Carol (2009)

aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

2016 #188
Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Disney's A Christmas Carol

You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

2 out of 5

Swiss Army Man (2016)

2016 #177
Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan
(aka Daniels) | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Swiss Army Man

If you’ve heard of Swiss Army Man, it’s likely for one thing and one thing only: this is the movie where Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe plays a farting corpse with an erection. But rather than the childish super-gross-out comedy that short pitch would seem to suggest, Swiss Army Man is actually quite a sweet indie comedy-drama. With some super-gross-out comedy thrown in, natch.

The plot that leads us to the farting boner corpse begins with Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island and, in his lonely despair, attempting suicide. Then he spots a body washed up on the nearby beach. It turns out this isn’t a new friend, because he’s dead. Hank dubs him ‘Manny’. One thing leads to another and Hank uses Manny’s gastric expulsions to create a kind of jet ski that propels them off the island. Hank soon discovers the corpse has myriad potential uses (hence the title), especially when he starts to talk…

Swiss Army Man is kind of like Cast Away if Wilson the volleyball was a farting corpse. Hank despairs at his situation, chats to the technically-inanimate Manny about it, and together they begin to work through the human condition. In between using Manny’s rigor mortis-powered limbs to chop wood, or his boner as a magic compass to guide them home, that is. I was going to say “it’s that kind of movie”, but I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie quite like Swiss Army Man.

He ain't heavy, he's my farting boner corpse

As well as the indie ruminations on the purpose and meaning of life, there are some mystery plots in play, just to keep things engaging. Who is the woman Hank keeps seeing in flashbacks? How many of Manny’s abilities are real and how much is just in Hank’s head? I mean, Manny can’t really talk… can he? What if Manny’s not the only one who’s dead? Maybe these shouldn’t be given so much focus — I don’t think the film wants to be about such plot mysteries — but they were the kind of things running through my head while watching, because you know there’s bound to be some kind of twist or reveal for what’s actually happening. Naturally, I won’t spoil that here; but perhaps the film plays even better on repeat viewings, when you can set aside such wonderings and focus even more fully on the friendship between man and corpse.

That’s naturally powered by the two lead performances. Dano is very good as a man who’s feeling suicidal for, as it turns out, more reasons than “I’m alone on an island”; though enacting such patheticness (as a human trait rather than a criticism of his mental condition) seems very much within Dano’s wheelhouse. Radcliffe, however, is simply brilliant. Manny comes back to ‘life’ as a kind of innocent, unsure of how the world works and driven by his basest feelings; a reflection of all our inner psyches, in a way. Physically constrained by being, y’know, dead, Radcliffe manages to convey so much despite — or perhaps even partly because of — the limitations imposed upon him.

Corpsehood

Made for a relative pittance, technical merits are also strong, with neat special effects to convey Manny’s abilities, and a very indie-ish but fitting vocal-driven score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell. Interestingly, the Blu-ray contains an option to watch the film without the score, which (based on the few bits I sampled) creates a remarkably different experience. That’s true of most films, of course, but here it dramatically changes the mood of some scenes. It’s less magical, in a way, and sadder, and maybe creepier, which is not the point or message of the film.

“The farting boner corpse movie” is the kind of pithy description that will put many viewers off, but hiding behind the gross-out facade is a sweet comedy-drama about human interaction that, in its own way, is an incredibly moving, perhaps even heartwarming experience.

4 out of 5

Swiss Army Man is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Thumbs up

The BFG (2016)

2017 #51
Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG

The BFG

The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.

If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).

For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made my assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).

Window dressing

More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.

There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.

More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.

Big star, little star

But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).

Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.

4 out of 5

The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

2016 #149
Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

Tokyo Tribe

Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

4 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Ghostbusters (2016)

aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

2017 #41
Paul Feig | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghostbusters

I doubt you need me to recap the controversy that dogged co-writer/director Paul Feig’s remake of the beloved ’80s classic Ghostbusters from its inception right through to its release (and, I guess, beyond). For one thing I think it would do us all good to be able to forget that ever happened, though I guess we won’t anytime soon. That said, one of the headline aspects of the campaign of negativity directed at the remake purely because it had an all-female lead cast (it’s unfathomably sad that that’s what it was all about, isn’t it?) was the reaction that greeted the film’s trailer — it’s officially the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Obviously a lot of that was thanks to empty-headed hate, but it didn’t help that the trailer was legitimately weak: for a comedy it seemed short on humour, and what supposed gags were present either weren’t funny or were unimaginative and overused.

Fortunately this complete dearth of laughter doesn’t extend to the film itself, though it’s not all good news: while parts are pretty funny, others are just as lazy as the trailer implied. Considering the volume of alternate lines included in the film’s special features, you have to wonder how some glaring duds, overfamiliar ‘jokes’, and flat-out clichés were left in. Of the lead cast, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones are all equally affected by this sometimes good / sometimes bad oscillation, though Chris Hemsworth as their pretty-but-dim receptionist manages to escape unscathed in a bubble of, if not hilarity, then definite amusement. However, while even people who dislike the film on the whole seem to reserve praise for Kate McKinnon, I thought she was by far the worst of the main cast. I don’t think her kerazy antics made me laugh once.

The Ghostbusters

Although Feig opted to fully reboot the Ghostbusters universe rather than continue where the previous films left off, there are variety of fan-pleasing fun nods to the original film, which I won’t spoil be detailing here. The same goes for the scattering of cameos from most of the original cast, which some have read as pace-breakingly fan-service-y but I thought mostly worked (though I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours that Bill Murray only appears due to a contractual obligation he couldn’t get out of). Similarly, there are at least four different recordings of Ray Parker Jr’s famous theme song, not to mention that it’s often mixed into Theodore Shapiro’s score too. Maybe that’s overkill, but it is a helluva catchy tune (though there’s nothing in-film quite as good as this remix of the trailer music). Thankfully, the risible version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott (which was at one point promoted as the main song) is relegated to a brief snippet in the middle of the film.

For a comedy director, Feig has a decent handle on the genre side of the movie. The climax is like an attempt at a big action scene by someone unfamiliar with filming action, but although it lacks a degree of polish it’s not bad — indeed, while McKinnon may not have made me laugh, she does get a fairly badass fight sequence. On the other hand, the special effects are excellent — some people seem to really hate them, but I think the colourful, fluorescent ghosts (and associated supernatural thingamajigs) look great. Even better is the way the apparitions regularly break out of the 2.35:1 frame. I mean, it’s pretty pointless (unless you’re watching in 3D, where such larks will enhance the 3D effect’s effectiveness), but it’s a kind of cinematic playfulness I like.

I ain't afraid of no fluorescent ghosts

However, one place the director’s hand really shows is in the story structure, because it’s really obvious that some stuff has been cut. Primarily, Wiig’s character rejoins the team in time for the climax, but we never actually saw her leave it. Later, villain Rowan makes the crowd pose in a dance move for no apparent reason, though the end credits reveal there was a whole dance routine that’s been relegated to under-the-crawl status. I guess these things were a victim of necessity: Feig has said the first cut was 4¼ hours long. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that’s 17 minutes longer, though apparently it’s effectively more than that because it features many alternate takes as well as plain extensions. For that reason I decided to watch the theatrical cut now and I’ll check out the extended version at a later date.

That’s not all, though: there’s also 138 minutes (aka just over 2¼ hours) of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes on the UK & European Blu-ray (over an hour more than on the US release). If you’re a serious fan of the film then I guess that’s a treasure trove, but it also says something about how comedy movies are produced nowadays, doesn’t it? (Or possibly how they always have been, I dunno.) I suppose you can spin that as both a positive and a negative. In the latter camp, it’s a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach, rather than a “write something good in the first place” one. In the former, why not try everything you can think of on set and then hone it to the stuff that works best in the edit? Though, as discussed earlier, it doesn’t feel like we got all grade-A material in the final cut.

Bustin' makes me feel badass

For all the dumbass criticisms online about it starring women (which there’s at least a couple of jokes about in the film, as it goes), it can only be a positive to see a genre movie starring women in the central roles. It’s not wholly positive in this field (the male characters are all degraded in one way or another, which is a full-180 role reversal that might feel just but isn’t helpful in the grand scheme), but every little helps, right? Leaving such political aspects aside, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (as the closing title card would have it) is mostly entertaining while it lasts, though it’s kind of lightweight with it, and therefore not something that’s likely to endure as the original has. Well, there have been worse remakes.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Tale of Tales (2015)

aka Il racconto dei racconti

2016 #148
Matteo Garrone | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Italy, France & UK / English | 15 / R

Tale of Tales

Based on 17th Century Italian fairytales by Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales relates three interlocking stories of dark fantasy. If there’s one thing that really connects them, it’s thematic: essentially, “be careful what you wish for”; or maybe “be grateful for what you’ve got”. There are primary characters in each tale who go to disgustingly extraordinary lengths to achieve what they desire — eating a sea-monster’s heart raw, breeding a giant flea, self-flaying — and it rarely turns out for the best.

If you can stomach the contents, there’s a quality cast, and the locations, production design, and cinematography are simply gorgeous.

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

2017 #16
Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

Her special ability is being a badass

The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

The eyes have it

Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

Let's go fly a kite

Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Ninja Scroll (1993)

aka Jūbē Ninpūchō

2017 #3
Yoshiaki Kawajiri | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / English | 18

Ninja Scroll

One of the films credited with helping to popularise anime in the West in the wake of Akira (reportedly it has had a greater and more enduring impact in the US than in Japan), Ninja Scroll is a fast-paced fantastical action flick full of gratuitous swordplay, gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity.

The story begins with Jubei Kibagami, a roaming ninja-for-hire, who becomes embroiled in stopping the machinations of the Shogun of the Dark after he rescues Kagero (a female ninja whose team were slaughtered by the Shogun of the Dark’s minions, the Eight Devils of Kimon), an event witnessed by Dakuan, a government spy who has been sent to investigate and stop the evil Shogun.

Try not to worry about that too much, though: Ninja Scroll moves like the clappers through a plot that is at once incredibly simple and ludicrously over-complicated. On the one hand it’s an action-driven adventure, as our trio of heroes battle their way through the Eight Devils one by one. On the other, it’s got all sorts of backstory stuff about who the Devils’ leader is and how he’s connected to something Jubei did years earlier and what any of this has to do with Kagero’s clan and… so on.

Samurai snack

Similarly, the pace has its pros and its cons. It certainly keeps things lively, with new monstrous Devils turning up regularly, bringing bursts of exciting action with them; but it makes things bewildering at times, with a flurry of characters and exposition introduced throughout the first half-hour or so. Once it settles down, there’s actually some quite nice character stuff involving Jubei and Kagero, and to an extent Dakuan, who remains a tricksy and unreliable ‘hero’.

That’s not what the film is best known for, though, probably because it’s hidden after a big chunk of the other stuff: ultra-violence and a sex obsession. As to the former, men are literally ripped limb from limb, or cut in half, or quarters, with blood regularly spraying everywhere. Depending on your viewing preferences, it’s either incredibly extreme or we’ve seen the same kinda stuff more regularly since. I wasn’t as shocked as some reviews warned I would be, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The same goes for the sex and nudity, which embraces everything from the villains bickering about who’s sleeping with who (if they’re devils then half of them are horny ones) to Kagero being sexually assaulted by a rock monster. In the audio commentary recorded for the 20th anniversary, the writer, director, and animation director debate whether some of that content was unnecessary. One of them (it’s hard to tell which from the subtitles) asserts that there were always gratuitous sex scenes in the B-actioners that partly inspired the film, so it goes toward creating the right atmosphere. I guess individual tastes will vary — I mean, it’s not as if Kagero’s assault is presented as a good thing, but it is still presented. Or it is nowadays: on the film’s first release the BBFC cut that part out. Times certainly have changed.

Kick-ass Kagero

For all that Ninja Scroll feels kinda antiquated in this carefree presentation of repellant acts, it has stood the test of time in other ways. For the faults in what happens to her early on, Kagero emerges as a competent and assured female hero (for the most part). The animation is frequently great, with some painterly compositions inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as dramatic action sequences. I watched the English dub, which is what it is (I’ve heard better; I’ve heard much worse), but on the aforementioned commentary track they regularly sing the praises of the Japanese voice cast, so maybe the subtitled version was the way to go.

Watching Ninja Scroll is a bit of a conflicting experience nowadays. Its story is both numbingly simple (“introduce villain, fight villain, defeat villain, repeat x8”) and insanely complicated; its sometimes balanced gender politics are offset by some gratuitous and distasteful content; its characters are initially archetypal and generally unlikable, but warm up in both regards as the film progresses. A bit like my opinion of it: I wasn’t entirely sure after my first viewing, but as I watched it back with the commentary I re-appreciated an awful lot of it. Maybe it’s a grower, then.

4 out of 5

Ninja Scroll is on Syfy UK tonight at 11:10pm.