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Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

kubo

Leave it to Laika to remind you that quality animation is not solely in the pocket of Big Mouse.  After their amazing interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, their homage to classic horror and Goonies-esque 80’s adventure films with ParaNorman, and a wild urban fairy tale with The Box Trolls, brings us a new treat in the form of a Japanese folk tale in Kubo and the Two Strings.  If you want to avoid any of the spoilers that may follow this and just want a straight up opinion, I’ll just say what I told my friend after the movie: “If more movies were like that, I’d actually go to the movies more often.”  It’s a story that is tight, where everything is established and foreshadowed, the characters are well acted and given well rounded three dimensional personalities, the animation is gorgeous and the cinematography is artistic.  In short, this film should be on your Must See list even if your not a normal fan of animation.  It’s not just a great animated movie, it’s a great movie in general.

Spoilers to follow beyond the break.

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Box Trolls: Not the Internet Kind

boxtrolls

As regular readers know, I’m a grown ass man who loves him some animation.  There’s no shame in that.  I also like the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix sequels.  There is some shame in that.  That’s off topic though. I wanted to talk a bit about a wonderful little film I saw that I’m worried might pass by unnoticed by most (there were only like 8 of us in the theater and the movie has only been out for 4 days) called ‘The Box Trolls’.

The movie is about a boy named ‘Eggs’ who has grown up in the care of the Box Trolls.  The reason for this we are told is because they stole him when he was a baby.  Eggs has a good life living with his pseudo parental figure Fish and his friend Shoe as the Box Trolls spend each night going up to the streets and taking pretty much anything metal or mechanical that isn’t bolted down to take home and make wacky inventions with.  Meanwhile, in the town above, the legend of the Box Trolls stealing children has taken on epic levels landing a group of exterminators to try to eliminate them in order to earn a place in privileged upper crust society.  Eggs meets the daughter of the Lord of the town, and learns what the upper world thinks of the Box Trolls and sets off on a mission to save all the box trolls that have been taken by the exterminators and prove that they are not monsters.

The Box Trolls is the latest film from Laika, the people behind the extremely enjoyable films ParaNorman and Coraline.  The film is a bit more a fairy tale than its predecessors though in such that it lacks the biting cynicism of modern day society.  That being said it does share the critique of family dynamics that were both in ParaNorman and Coraline – the problem of parents ignoring their children to some extent.  However this one takes the notion to the ridiculous when the Lord of the town pretty much flat out doesn’t even acknowledge what his daughter is saying most of the item.  Not dismissing it, not hand waving it away, but full on “Did you say something? Guess not.” level of ignore.

Like other Laika productions, Box Trolls is also not afraid to “go there”.  And despite having significantly less frightening images than ParaNorman or Coraline, it does not shy away from darker subjects such as death and the monstrous fables about Box Trolls routinely make mention of things like ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘mountains of bones’ (it turns out to be more of a river of insects and mountains of scrap junk).  The little girl Winnie is pretty much obsessed with the grotesque aspects of the legends and routinely fantasizes about being ripped apart and devoured by monsters.  She is weird.  But truth be told if you’re worried about kids getting scared at this film, the worse it gets visually is a silhouette of a man being beaten with a wrench and one hideously extreme allergic reaction.  So definitely less frightening than ParaNorman or Coraline, but still a bit dark.  It’s not my place to say if your kid can handle that, so I’ll just leave it to you with knowledge to decide.

The casting and script is absolutely phenomenal with pretty much everyone turning in a fun performance.  The story has honest moments that tug at your heart strings, have some great moments of suspense, and will have you laughing your head off – ESPECIALLY if you like puns.  Yes, lots of puns.  Mostly cheese puns.  The upper crust of this town have an obsession with fancy cheeses and the puns just fly out whenever the topic comes out.  Once to the point of having an in-universe rim shot.

I do recommend this film, especially if you liked films like Coraline or ParaNorman but wanted something a tad bit less frightening for the family.  Even if you’re not worried about frights, it’s still a solid enjoyable family film that has something for everyone and doesn’t treat its audience – even the little ones – like morons.  Heck, the first 10 minutes barely has English spoken on screen.  Just troll gibberish.  Still you don’t get lost with it and it’s told well visually.  The film runs about 90 minutes, and uses it all well.  It never feels  slow or rushed.  So go ahead and go check it out!  This film needs some love because it honestly looks like it’s going to be booted out of theaters soon for not having the big audience it deserves.

Okay, before I end this post I do need to address the elephant in the room. People who don’t want to hear about potential real issues, you have been warned.  From this point on, it’s real talk about real issues.  And also spoilers.

There’s been a lot of talk in various online circles about the Box Trolls since it hit early previews that the film should be avoided and even boycotted due to it being transphobic or transmisogynistic and that it makes fun of trans women.  The problem really with that statement is that as a completely cis-het white male, I’m not in any sort of position of telling people how they should FEEL about something in the movie.  But what I can do is offer my observations on the events of the film because from what I saw it didn’t seem exactly that transphobic.

I know, I know! “Vry you just said you were a Cis-Het White American Male! Why should we even listen to you!”  And that is fair.  You might not listen to me.  And by no means am I saying you must but allow me to present why I am saying that before my opinion is dismissed.  You see, without going into too many spoilers (there are some. You have been warned.) It’s revealed about halfway through the film (or a third of the way if you’re half smart and figure it out yourself) that the local star of stage Madam Frou Frou is in fact the villain, Mister Snatcher, dressed in women’s clothing.  He does this to perform a show that paints the box trolls as hideous monsters that need to be exterminated by – well – Snatcher, and he also uses the persona of Frou Frou to hobnob with the social elite that he longs to be a part of (They are called White Hats, where Snatcher and his crew are lowly bottom-of-the-city working class Red Hats).  Those are the only times we ever see Snatcher dress or act as a woman and in fact drops the Frou Frou voice and any pretense of not being a man as soon as the rich people are out of sight.  At no point in the film does he ever wish to identify as a woman, or become a woman, beyond putting on the show and milking the fame it comes with.  The fact that he dresses as a woman is used to comedic effect TWICE.  Once is when Eggs tries to expose him and as Frou Frou pretends that ‘she’ wears a wig and not that the identity is fake to maintain face among the rich, and when the rich people finally figure it out the Lord of the town makes a passing, completely ambiguous “I regret so many things now.”

So is this transphobic?  Well, it’s a difficult thing to put in a box actually (see what I did there?)  From my research (yes, I actually try to read up when I’m dealing with REAL issues) there are several ways the term transgendered can be used and in some ways it refers specifically to people who were born one gender but identify as another gender.  However, some broader definitions of the term include any activity where one gender takes on traits, dresses like, or presents oneself as another gender, in which this definitely fits.  See, Snatcher’s persona of Madam Frou Frou would technically be Drag – presenting yourself as another gender for the purpose of entertainment or performance.  He does not identify as a woman, wish he was born a woman, or desires to be a woman outside of his time performing or hobnobbing as a consequence of performing.  One is to promote his business, and the other is to temporarily live the life of his dreams.

However beyond the wig joke,  the Lord’s embarrassment at finding out his dream gal is actually the man he’s been so disgusted of he refuses to usually let him in the door of the house when they speak, and how atrociously bad his Madam Frou Frou outfit is (It’s a dress, wig, and make up. Nothing else.) The entire concept is never really treated as a joke.  At no point is he vilified for putting on a drag show after its revealed.  Heck, Snatcher is the one who lets it drop that he IS Madam Frou Frou to rub it into the Lord’s face that he was so easily duped.

Though again from what I’ve read there are real issues between drag performers and transgendered people.  Namely that there are trans folks out there who feel that drag is an insult that mocks the very real and difficult issues they have to deal with.  That drag gives a negative public image to people who then turn around and think all trans people are just “cross dressing weirdos” or something and this has created a very real rift between the two groups.  So for that reason,  I can’t just write off the complaints of transphobia as complaining for the sake of complaining.  If you are trans person who takes real offense to drag, then yes, you probably will find parts of this film offensive because those elements exist in it.  I can’t tell you not to be offended by that.  It’s not my place.

Frozen Treats

Disney-Frozen-Logo

So I finally got around to seeing Frozen.  Yes, you can pick your jaws up off the floor, I know it took me a while.  But I’m not a young spry chap with infinite free time that can see every animated film that comes out like I was back in college.  But those who know me know that I am a lover of all things animated, so I felt that writing a short review and sharing my thoughts on the film.  Why? Because it’s my blog.  And I have a whole category over there on the side clearly labeled “Cartoons & Anime”.  That’s why. Is that not enough?

The Premise

For those who aren’t familiar with the general plot of the story, it revolves around two sisters: Elsa and Anna. When Elsa was born she was gifted and/or cursed with magic over ice.  However, after an accident with Anna, her parents try to help her learn to control her powers. By locking her in their palace, and letting no one – not even Anna – interact with her until she has mastered her magic.  But the parents die, as they do in Disney films, and now Elsa is left as the Queen of their small but prosperous kingdom. However, during the coronation Elsa looses controls of her powers and is driven out by fear to the north mountains where she builds an ice palace in her own private idaho ice kingdom completely unaware that her actions have left the kingdom buried and frozen in a deep snow in the middle of summer. Now Anna has to try to convince her sister to thaw the kingdom.

It sounds REALLY simplistic, but actually it constantly messes with your expectations and rarely do things like this stay so simple.  Treason, treachery, trolls, and snowmen also make appearances and often not where you expect them.  I don’t want to go into much or else I’ll spoil some of the awesome of the film but the film does a great job of screwing with your typical “Ah of course it’s Disney” stereotypes and tropes.  All the way down to the ending and how the plot is resolved challenges the way you would think a film like this would play out.  Honestly, it feels more like a Dreamworks story but the classic Disney quality to it and next to zero pop culture references (Seriously, Dreamworks. Tone that **** down.)

The Visuals

Gorgeous.  That’s all I can say.  Starting back when Disney Animation put on Tangled, I think they really hit on something with the overall emphasis on using facial animation to depict emotion.  It added an energy to the characters’ expressions that you didn’t see in a lot of other CGI films.  Combining that with the enjoyably cartoony body movements and you honestly have some of the most delightful characters to watch on screen in a long time (in my opinion at least.)  That same energy is brought to bare in Frozen, emphasized on the emotional turmoil that Elsa goes through over the film and the manic pixie girl like tendencies of Anna.  It’s an animated film that’s fun to watch and re-watch just to look at all the little details that each character has in a scene.  Something I’ve missed since the later seasons of Jimmy Neutron on Nickelodeon when the animators started really having fun putting gags in the background or with characters that are not the center of focus for the audience.

Of course, I’d be called on it if I didn’t bring up the overly emphasized clipping errors that have been making the rounds on the internet.  Yes, Elsa’s hair clips through her arm at one point.  It’s not even a half second long and unless it’s been beaten into you by sites like Tumblr or wherever it’s being passed around you wouldn’t likely notice it. Honestly, I barely noticed it all even knowing it was there with all the other glorious visual being poured directly into my eye balls.  Like the ICE.

Oh geeze, if there was ever a reason to buy a Blu-Ray player, watching this movie in high definition just for the ICE is going to be worth it.  Even in theaters the fractals of ice just look gorgeous.

The Acting

Honestly, this is probably where I have the least to say.  I’ve never been a huge critic of actors.  Everyone did really well here.  That’s about all I can say.  If there were any shows stealers it would be Olaf the Snowman voiced by Josh Gad who turned in an amazingly happy over the top and blissfully innocent snowman.  Honestly, we were astonished about how darn loveable that performance was.  Kirstin Bell (Anna) and Johnathan Groff (Kristof) turn in performances with a great chemistry between the two with well timed oral jabs at each other.  Idina Menzel as Elsa was…  well that’s complicated the more I think of it.  She does the high drama moments incredibly well (Not surprising for a Broadway star) but in the less tense moments felt a tad… meh.  It may be partly because outside of the fervent emotional turmoil, Elsa doesn’t have a ton going on as a character, especially in comparison to Anna who deals with her repressed worldview, her is she/isn’t she evil relationship with her sister, and her spontaneous and insane love life.  Elsa is just a bit more of a one trick character.  But that one trick is rendered masterfully.

Other Things

You know the theory has been passed around that Elsa’s story in Frozen is very much akin to dealing with a mental illness, and more specifically depression.  As someone with a mental illness, I can say that yea. There IS a lot of that. It did strike a serious cord in parts with things I’ve experienced in my own life.  And it handles them well.  Repeated phrases like Don’t show, don’t let them know and the insistence of just trying to control it. After all how many times have someone heard “Have you tried just being happy and stop being depressed?”  The message continues with the idea that no matter how bad, or how awful, or how much damage you might unintentionally cause – there will always those who care about you. Be it family or friends.  It was a nice message that really made me feel warm fuzzies walking out of that theater and I won’t lie – I teared up more than once.  (Okay, fine I tear up at the drop of a hat. I was flat out bawling tears at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3.)

So would I recommend the film? Absolutely.  No matter how old or young you are there is something wonderful and powerful to be found in this film.  I have been beaming about it since we saw it and I don’t imagine my utter dumbfounded shock at how amazing it was will subside anytime soon.  So yes, go see Frozen. Do it.

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