I’ve mentioned at least once on this blog that the great peril of being a movie fan with children is that you get drug to a lot of terrible, terrible kids movies. But the flip side of that is the fact that you also get the excuse to see great family films without feeling like a creepy adult who’s out of place. And so, we took advantage of having kids who love going to the movies to check out a pretty great double feature of the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon and Laika Animation’s newest work, Kubo and the Two Strings.
So let’s start with Pete’s Dragon, which couldn’t be less promising on paper. Another remake of an older Disney property, and this time, it’s not even a film that many people were exactly clamoring for. (I haven’t seen the original Pete’s Dragon in many, many years, but I really remember thinking it was pretty slow and dull, even as a kid.) And yet, that’s maybe the best case for a remake: the chance to take a good premise and do something better with it. And that’s exactly what Disney did: they handed it to an indie filmmaker with a growing reputation (David Lowery), and let him take it and run. So gone are the abusive redneck parents and the country setting; instead, we get the story of a young boy orphaned in a car accident and left to survive on his own in the woods. Six years later, when he’s found healthy and hearty, he says that he wasn’t alone – he was protected by his friend, Elliott…a dragon.
And to Lowery’s credit, there’s no doubt about this. We see Elliott within minutes of the film’s opening, and not even in shadowy, half-glimpsed moments; we see him full on, and we know that he’s real. More to the point, Pete’s Dragon isn’t the kind of film that spends time with doubting adults questioning what’s going on around them, or denying the evidence in front of their faces. No, instead, Pete’s Dragon lets its adults be intelligent and perceptive, and instead becomes a story about familial bonds – how we connect with other people, how we leave our friends and pasts behind, the relationship between ourselves and the natural world, and how we find meaning in others, be they family, friends, or some combination of the two.
Even better, Lowery lets this play out in a mellow, low-key style that works for kids, but also reminds me of the 1970’s, where directors were allowed to approach films in a more laid-back style, and where plot often took a backseat to character development and small moments. That’s not to say that Pete’s Dragon is entirely a low-key affair; there’s a character who suddenly becomes the film’s villain in the final act, and while it’s handled well – he’s a more nuanced villain than your typical kids movie gets – it still feels like an unnecessary escalation for the film to jump through. But even that doesn’t detract from the film’s beautiful approach to nature and to its characters, nor the rich, gorgeous cinematography that really brings out the beauty of the natural world. And that’s Pete’s Dragon – and its appeal – in a nutshell. In a world and time where so many “kids” movies are overbearing, overloud, sugar-packed, manic festivals, there’s something wonderful about a low-key story that stays simple, thoughtful, and emotionally rich, and does so by remembering that kids are people too, and capable of more than we assume sometimes. Rating: ****
But while I liked Pete’s Dragon a lot, it’s nothing for me compared to the magical experience that is Kubo and the Two Strings.
I’m a fan of stop-motion animation in general, as well as Laika Animation’s past output. There’s something about stop-motion that brings out the best in those who practice it – a patience and attention to detail that’s impossible to fake, and which help the animators to create rich, vibrant worlds that truly live and breathe. But while Laika’s done great with that in the past, I’ve never seen them do something like Kubo, which combines their always great animation with a sense of style that turns its world into something wholly new and original – something like I’ve never entirely seen before. Part martial arts epic, part fantasy saga, part parable about family, part Asian folk art – Kubo manages to be all of that and more.
In broad strokes, you could argue that Kubo is just a variation on the typical magical quest movie. Kubo, a young boy, is being pursued by his grandfather; not content having taken Kubo’s left eye when he was an infant, he wants Kubo’s other eye for reasons that are not yet clear to us. The only way for Kubo to fight back is to retrieve the three pieces of the mystical armor his mother has told him about in stories about his late father. There’s a lot there that’s familiar, sure, but that’s okay; Kubo is, at its core, a story that’s using its tropes so that it can live in the details. It comes to live in Kubo’s origami, which serves both as his primary weapon and the film’s stylistic anchor. It lives through his sidekicks, whose expressive faces and wonderful body language grip your attention with both silent comedy and jaw-dropping battle sequences. And most of all, it lives in Kubo’s world, from shadowy caves that hide lurking monsters to a beautiful ocean populated by fascinating creatures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stop-motion film go for something as stylish and beautiful as what Kubo attempts, and the result is a constant joy to watch, even if all you cared about was the technical level.
But for me, Kubo‘s story is just as effective, starting with tropes and turning it into something profound and moving in a way that reminds me of the way Neil Gaiman uses fairy tales as a starting point for his boundless imagination. Both begin in familiar territory, but use that only as a jumping-off point, a way to plunge into material that’s far more complex and emotionally satisfying. Yes, Kubo may start as a quest, but by the time you reach the final confrontation, you realize that this isn’t a conventional story; indeed, the way that Kubo ends up fighting the final battle helps you to understand the complex story that’s been going on underneath the surface for the entire film.
I’m not going to hold back: I loved, loved, loved this movie. I loved its beautiful style, its incredible animation, its dazzling action sequences, its subtle but effective humor, its great characters, and its emotionally satisfying story. I loved the world it created, and I loved the characters that lived there. And more than that, I loved that it did what the best films do: it created a world where you can live, a world that you could never attain in the real world, and brought it to rich, vivid, wonderful life. And while I was there, I got a great story, some hard laughs, and a sense of excitement and fun. It’s a truly great piece of family filmmaking, and a joy for those who love imaginative, exciting pieces of work. Rating: *****