Here’s how it is: the Earth got used up, so Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR. Those who possess it no longer bound by the laws of equivalent exchange in alchemy. Their mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. The people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups– psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. There is nothing wrong with your television set.
If you must blink, do it now.
(Try and guess all of them in the comments, I’ll tell you if you’re right!)
So I saw Kubo and the Two Strings this weekend and it was good. Like, really good. On the scale of Shark Tale to PIXAR, it’s a solid The Little Mermaid. The animation is gorgeous– LAIKA has really outdone themselves this time, especially with all of the origami scattered throughout the film. The characters are wonderful too, from the design, to the animation (again), to the actors (though they sort-of oversold Takei’s role, it’s basically a cameo), to the dialogue. The fight sequences were great as well, extremely well choreographed with very fluid motion and interesting to look at. Plus the fact that the movie used proper lighting so you could actually see all the action. And the story… um… Well, the story is…
Okay, time to get meta.
It’s not that the story is hard to remember. Bad Guy #369 is after Kubo (Hero #5346), and so he has to collect MacGuffins 478-480 in order to defeat Bad Guy #369. Supporting characters 982 and 3497 help him, Supporting characters 4657 and 4658 try to stop him. Add in various monsters protecting the MacGuffins and there’s your story. I talked about the Hero’s Journey in my Breaking Genre: Star Wars post, and it’s the same here. It even has shades of the standard PIXAR story: you know, there once was a [main character]. Every day, [normal day for main character]. One day, [inciting incident]. Because of that, [plot point]. Because of that, [next plot point]. Finally, [conclusion]. Tale as old as screenwriting. Do not take this as me saying you should not see this movie. It is absolutely gorgeous, and the fact that the plot is a little weak is incidental. Star Wars Episode IV has a weak plot, for many of the same reasons.
The thing is, Kubo is a storyteller. That’s not an exaggeration, his job is going into town and telling stories with his magic origami. He learns these stories from his mother, stories are mentioned throughout the movie, and in the end, he’s left to tell more stories of what we just watched. Except the new story is hardly different from the old one.
People say that there are a limited number of stories to tell. That’s both true and not true. In terms of basic structures, yeah probably. There’s a reason Joseph Campbell and William Shakespeare are some of the most important names in film. What makes them different stories, and what makes stories innumerable is in the execution. Watch the trailer again, and pay close attention to the music. Did you recognize “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the first time? Pretty different than when George played it, but the melody is the same. That’s kind of emblematic of the whole movie.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,
When I was young and dreamed of glory:
You have no control
Who tells your story.”
–George Washington (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton)
Well, mostly, Mr. President. There’s a moment in the movie where Monkey (Charlize Theron) says that her story will end with her. Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) tells her it won’t, that Kubo will tell her story, and it will be passed along by people who hear it. The fact that Kubo is a storyteller is the strongest part of the story, which is amazing because usually that would be the weakest. It means he’s charismatic, which helps him gain allies, and it is his best defense against the villain.
The whole setting that the movie creates hinges on the fact that each person has a story. Which is, y’know, a reflection of life. Sure, life doesn’t have the same neat narrative, there are threads left unresolved, characters drop in and out very quickly (too quickly sometimes), it’s a bit confusing, and everyone seems to be in a different genre, but the same could be said about Stranger Things and that was fantastic. It’s easier today than it ever has been to tell our own stories, but the only way it will live is either if people look for it or if it is shared. Like Kubo shares the stories his mother teaches him. Like Eliza shared the stories she gathered. Sure, we tell a lot of the same stories, but if the story looks and feels as real as we are, who cares?
The problem is going to be when audiences start noticing. ‘Cause here’s the thing, if you think that there are a limited amount of stories that can be told, that will limit the amount of stories that will be told. The fact that we’re getting one, if not two, new Marvel movies every year for the foreseeable future was exciting when The Avengers came out. That excitement has died down, a lot. The biggest buzz in entertainment right now is not for anything in theaters, but for Stranger Things. Some are even tired of who we tell our stories about– outcries and confusion over Matt Damon starring in a movie about the Great Wall of China had to be stopped by the director himself, Zhang Yimou (who also directed Hero, one of my favorite movies), by publicly stating that Matt Damon is supposed to be a white guy in China, and that he’s part of a ensemble cast of mostly Chinese actors. Cracked is saying that the blockbuster industry as we know it is going to collapse in 2018. If they’re wrong, then nothing happens. We’ll go to movies, peacefully, quietly, we’ll enjoy it! But if they’re right…
If they’re right, I’m not sure Hollywood is going to be able to stop before it crashes.
There is a solution, and it’s similar to the one I gave in The Case For Critics. You’re the only one who can tell the story you have to tell, so go do it. Put yourself back in the narrative, as it were. That’s what motivates me as an artist. Or, conversely, search for new stories. There are plenty of places to find them. Sure, not everything will be to your liking, but the ones that are, you pass on. Word-of-mouth still works, despite what Hollywood might think. But you won’t know what things really look like if you never leave the cave, and the more you know, the more different those shadows will look when you return to them.
Also, go see Kubo and the Two Strings.