Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

PG, 101 minutes, Fantasy

Staring: Art ParkinsonCharlize TheronMatthew McConaughey

Let be known that ANY movie I review with stop-motion animation will ultimately be ranked higher than most other films simply because of the painstakingly colossal effort that goes into making each and every frame. Spending an entire 12-hour work day to come up with only forty seconds of usable screen time takes more patience than I can ever hope to muster. That being said, I’m bound to find some real stinkers in the future…

Kubo isn’t one of them. It’s a tale about a boy who has three strings… Yeah, I don’t get the title either, but I’ll come back to that. At Kubo’s birth his grandfather steals one of the infant’s eyes causing his mother flee into hiding with him. As Kubo grows, he begins to utilize a magical ability that brings life to paper via a shamisen. Eventually Kubo accidentally reveals himself to his sinister aunts which forces him to embark on a tragic journey of retribution.

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Smoking is bad, kids. And so are villains.

Let me just start by saying that any flaw this movie possesses is far overshadowed by the amazing style it presents. It comes off to me as a European film trying to create a Japanese story.  I’m an American and this movie feels totally foreign to me despite the fact that it isn’t. Every model appears to inhabit an individual reality full of gritty, detailed depth. Simply watching an eye move is a showcase of the animator skill that far exceeds the silly warping animation of today’s cartoons. I might just fangasm…

The story itself is a little rough in patches. I honestly don’t understand the whole “two strings” bit. At one point it seems to make sense… until Kubo gets a third string. I don’t really want to go into detail as it might ruin the plot, but I honestly would have felt better about the whole ordeal if this movie had been titled “Kubo and the Three Strings.” Because there are three. Three strings. Not two.

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The fact that he isn’t constantly covered in paper cuts almost seems like an oversight.

As far as characters go, our main cast is small, but pretty great. Except Beetle. I couldn’t really feel out the character as the creators perhaps wanted me to and that’s probably because of the constant freaking whistle in McConaughey’s voice. While he does play his part in the story, I mostly found him an annoying and useless shield–fodder for the bad guys. But oh, the bad guys… Or gals rather. The twin aunts are menacing beyond words; mechanically haunting (yes, “mechanical” and not “maniacal”) and a devastating force that makes Kubo’s childhood a nightmare. They have to be watched in order to be fully appreciated.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it easily counts a great movie. Family friendly, yet dark enough to appeal to older audiences, Kubo at face value might be a story that’s already been told over and over again, but it’s presentation has few rivals.

Rating: Own it.

tl;dr
Watch: Dat stop-animation tho.
Don’t watch: If you grew up hating Gopher from Winnie the Pooh.

Sourcing It: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

Written by: L. Frank Baum

It’s been an interesting month. I didn’t expect to get back into writing because of a single story, but it sure helped get things moving again. The Mrs. suggested I read some classics and month by month I have been consuming both the source novel and their cinematic counterparts. Not being “in the know” about Oz movies, I had no idea that I would find so many that I’d end up making a themed month of movie reviews.

So what about the novel? It was written so long ago that I would imagine the 1939 movie has more prominence in modern culture. This begs the question: Is the book anything like the movie? The short answer is, well, yes… but no. After a month of me prattling on, is there any real surprise that the story involves a girl from Kansas seeking a way home? Or that her unconventional companions are each seeking rewards of their own? If you’ve somehow forgotten or if you’re just joining in, please take some time to look back.

There are two major-MAJOR-major differences between the book and their adaptations. The first is the use of color. As far as I can tell, the 1939 film has the best use of adding color to the story. However, that film shocks an audience unaccustomed to color whereas the book uses color as a main theme. A person wearing blue is defined as a Munchkin, but a person wearing yellow would be a Winkie. While one city is colored Emerald, another is built out of rubies. It is even mentioned that white is the color of witches. There was a definitive stress on color acting as an identifier, perhaps to help young reader remember the differences. Some might see this as a racial issue, but the color is in regards to everything but skin tone, so just shut up.

Each land in Oz is colored differently: blue, green, yellow, red–but there are two other colors worth note.  The first is gold, the color given to the cap that controls the winged monkeys. This cap is seldom seen, but a variation of it does exist in the Muppets rendition. The real deal is briefly seen in the 1939 movie, but there was likely a cut segment so it’s only on screen for a couple of seconds. In the novel, this cap has a reoccurring role that is strangely absent from the big screen versions.

The second color gives a very different look to those iconic ruby slippers. They were actually silver in the novel! I’m sure gold and silver were used as opposites. Besides everyone likes shiny things and red is Glinda’s color. Yup, that same floating fairy-esque redhead everyone is familiar with only appears at the end of the book in her own world of red, but those slippers remain as silver as ever throughout. I’m sure that they wanted the shoes to be more dramatic for the movie so they made them red, but it should be worth noting that it messes with Baum’s coloring system.

Now the second major difference between the book and its film adaptations are chapter after chapter of missing misadventures with our heroes. There was no Queen of the Field Mice; no porcelain people; no Quadlings, it wasn’t even until I watched the Muppets that kalidahs made an appearance (and we all know how much of an issue I’ve had with that)! This was obviously done to save time, and I know, I know: the book isn’t going to be the same as the movie. However, the book did give a fresh perspective on the story. There’s an entire world that Baum created that was barely touched upon in the movies. Heck, the book barely covered some of lands and its people, but from a man who originally didn’t plan on write anymore, Baum sure spent a lot of time balancing out and giving potential to his creation.

And this potential was milked.  With something like 42 books existing in the series, dozens of movies, cartoons, and television episodes inspired by the source, not to mention toys, video games, and an unending sea of references it’s no surprise that the Wizard of Oz is indeed a wonderful experience.

Rating: Read it.

tl;dr
Read: Fans of the story will enjoy having more adventures.
Don’t read: Why are you here?

Please note that this is the last Oz-related post I plan to make for the year, but I still hope to continue writing. Right now I imagine you’re either breathing a sigh of remorse or of relief. If you enjoyed this series, please let me know in the comments! Next year I might just do another round!

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (2003)

TV-PG, 100 minutes, Fantasy

Starring: Ashanti DouglasSteve WhitmireEric JacobsonBill BarrettaDave Goelz

I find the Muppets to be an odd case. It feels as though they are a struggling brand limited by the death of their creator. Perhaps the real reason is instead their suppression by Overlord M (I don’t want to get sued, so that’s the best you’ll get). Getting locked in a vault for a decade didn’t help, but it should be apparent that this hoard of felt creations has not been forgotten. Calling upon tradition to cast all manner of celebrities and give their own warped view of well known stories, we are cast into our last Oz movie of the month.

Would you be surprised if I told you that it’s the same story you’ve heard me blab about for the past few weeks? Well… it is. Except this time Dorothy (Ashanti) wants to be a pop star and Toto is a… prawn? The Tin… Thing is actually a surveillance robot and Lion wants to be a stand-up comedian. Okay, so there ARE some differences, but they’re still going to see the Wizard!

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Miss Piggy says she wasn’t a fan of The Wiz either.

One difference I found pretty cool was that the witches are all sisters and are all played by Miss Piggy clones. Two are good and two are bad (no surprise), but they’re all divas (really not a surprise) and they used to be in the same band (what?) but the band broke up (oh…) and now one them has an evil reality TV show (…kay). See? Just like the story you’ve come to know and love (yup).

Don’t get me wrong, this is a decent little made-for-TV movie, but I can completely understand why it wasn’t well received. Firstly, the brand was iffy at the time. Secondly, it was geared towards a younger audience, yet it still had some edgy adult humor. Thirdly, that CG was just garbage… This is one of the few versions that actually has Oz appear as something similar to the creatures in the book and they’re not Muppets??? That–that–is the biggest disappointment of this little number.

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Pigs are flying now, mom.  You said I could have a PlayStation!

There is something… Something I’ve searched for all month. Something I have wanted and hoped and dreamed about seeing ever since I set down the Baum classic. Something… critical. AHAUHAUHAUH!!! No, seriously.  Kalidahs are in this freaking movie. Kalidahs, folks. Bloodthirsty tiger bears and they’re IN. THIS. MOVIE. I don’t know why, but these creatures stuck in my mind as soon as I read about them and I’ve been a little disappointed every time I didn’t get to see them. This time was different. Here they were: bloodthirsty kalidah critics played by none other than Waldorf and Statler. It’s about time!

I know it’s Friday and I’ve been doing it all month, but I just couldn’t make myself label this movie a flop. It’s not the greatest, but it is entertaining and still worth a few laughs (plus there’s the entire last paragraph where I finally get what I wanted), so there was no justification for slamming it. If you’re a fan of the Muppets or the Oz series alike and you have a couple of hours, give this movie a go.

Rating: Watch it.

tl;dr
Watch: KALIDAHS!!!
Don’t watch: because felt gives your brain a rash.

Images © The Jim Henson Company

Flop Friday: The Wiz (1978)

G, 134 minutes, Fantasy

Starring: Diana RossMichael JacksonNipsey RussellTed RossRichard Pryor

Sometimes you come across the weirdest things. Cult films certainly fall into that category because the niche seems so specific that it’s not always going to work for everyone. I feel like I like cult films. Certainly not films that won… *shudder* Sundance awards, but cult films? Good to go, chief.

Then there’s this garbage. No, literally. Some of the characters are made out of garbage. The story’s the same: Dorothy, tornado, Oz, Scarecrow, Witch, but the… the… everything is so different about it. I mean, there are SPACE BABIES for crying out loud!

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lolwut

Don’t get me wrong: The setting is AMAZING. The Land of Oz is a warped version of New York, so it’s very urban. However, instead of being confined like I imagine The Big Apple is (bucket list item), it’s actually quite sprawling and certain backdrops appear to go on forever. In fact, I’m quite surprised to learn that portions of the film were shot in open spaces around New York because haven’t they, like, built apartments over ever square inch of that place? The scenery has touches of futuristic design that still hold up 40 years later and dark intrigue that makes me wonder what’s around the next corner. I’m labeling this as the true hallmark of the film.

Now if anyone calls the music the hallmark of this film, run because they’re likely a dang hippie reptilian.  The movie is a musical, tying bits of song to traveling, new places, new places, and feelings but I liked very little of it. With a big name like Diana Ross playing the lead role, I really expected more from her. First of all, she’s playing a woman in her twenties, while she’s actually in her thirties at the time of the filming, while she looks like she’s in her forties. I have a feeling that overuse of makeup and bad lighting are to blame, but she simply is not fit for the part. To add to this, I would have expected one of The Supremes to be able to carry the show, so I don’t know what the heck happened here.

It is Michael Jackson, however, that carries the entire weight of this film. His acting, dancing, and singing far surpass anything else presented in this movie. It’s a shame really, since he stared in so little, but gave such an awesome performance in this offbeat flick. However, perhaps Jackson’s performance is so great because everyone else involved in the film didn’t really pull through. The Tin Man is forgettable and the Lion is nothing short of annoying, with mood swings that make you wonder why they bothered with trying to make him seem scared to begin with. Even the costumes, which seem to emphasize racial stereotypes, would give a kalidah nightmares.

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Hands down the coolest scene: living graffiti.

Finally, I need to touch upon the dance sequences. THEY’RE SO FREAKING LONG. I think I clocked the Wicked Witch of the West’s scene at just under 9 minutes. Okay, so… this was a stage production that they brought to the big screen. Got it. Unfortunately, no one seemed to realize that the two mediums don’t always sync. A dance number is well and good, but control yourself, Hollywood. By the time you reach the two hour mark, you begin to realize that this stuff is all just filler. C’mon, guys. I have work in the morning. This film turns itself into a commitment without giving much back.

Overall, I’d say if anyone recommends this movie to you, you should ask them what you’re getting into and then free up your schedule for a bit. That person isn’t going to be me though. It’s just as simple to look up a scene here and there in order to get a feel for it. While it might be a cult film, it’s certainly not worthy in my book.

Rating: Don’t bother.

tl;dr
Watch: Cool scenery. One of MJ’s few movie performances.
Don’t watch: Because it’s really just a time-consuming disappointment and you already know the story anyway.

Images © Universal

The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s (2007)

Not Rated, 47 minutes, Fantasy

Starring: Lisa VischerPhil VischerMike Nawrocki

There are probably a few dozen movies, short films, and television episodes that are adapted from the 40 plus books set in the Land of Oz. It wouldn’t surprise me if I could continue this series through the rest of the year… but let’s not get crazy. I would rather focus on things I can easily obtain. So imagine my frustration when I buy a DVD, brand new out of the crinkly plastic, and the wife and I sit down to watch it… only to have the audio replaced with the commentary track. Changing the audio settings does nothing. I bought a bad burn. No offense intended towards the production company, but seriously, whomever first thought up the commentary track should go sit on a sharp stick.

Years later, the wife and I decide to give this another go. Libraries are a poor cinephile’s best friend. The DVD works and we’re finally able to watch The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s. This isn’t your typical Oz rendition and if you’re familiar with the VeggieTales series, that’s par for the course. Our hero, Darby, runs away from home in order to visit an amusement park where he spends all of his savings. Shamed, he returns home penniless to beg for forgiveness.

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A boy and his pig. Dog… No, pig–I’m so confused.

The first thing anyone should notice about this is… well, the vegetable part. But that’s not what I’m concerned with. Darby is a boy–the first male lead in any Wizard of Oz take I’ve seen. His presence should come as no surprise after Bob the Tomato explicitly tells us that this is a version of the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son.

Obviously playing off of the MGM film, the video takes on both visual and musical similarities, with the exception being that home is still in color. Another similarity is the presence of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion; however, these characters aren’t that close to their literary counterparts. It’s kind of nice: having the same story, but not really being presented with anything close to it. This would lead us to the conclusion that this is just a simple marketing ploy, but at least it’s not another rehash.

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PUPPIES!!!!!!

This story is goofy and full of the lighthearted humor common in the VeggieTales series, but it also has a moral for both children and parents alike as both sides are just as capable of making mistakes. It’s forgiveness that shows love in the end.

Rating: Watch it.

tl;dr
Watch: It’s moral and silly.
Don’t watch: You have to be into this kind of thing.

Images © Big Idea

Flop Friday: The Wizard of Oz (1933)

Not Rated, 9 minutes, Fantasy

Starring: Absolutely no one.

Digging through the legacy a little book about a Kansas farm girl left behind can yield some interesting results. I didn’t expect there to be quite so many variations on a story that this millennium doesn’t seem so concerned with. Last millennium? Well, that’s a different story. Slap the word “Oz” on it and you’ve got yourself a nice little pile of money.

Known for being the original color version of Wizard of Oz, the 1933 version is an animated short in the style of Betty Boop cartoons. Dorothy, living a gray world, rides the winds to Oz where her arrival is celebrated by the masses… for some reason. The Wizard of Oz himself greets Dorothy and her assembled party only to set a giant… chicken… upon them. At this point I never expected to see or write anything with the context of a giant chicken outside of a Chicken Boo cartoon. Ba-cuck!

There isn’t a whole lot to say about this… It’s just a forgotten short that was almost certainly tacked onto a weekly newsreel. The story is bizarre and rushed. Dorothy meets everyone in what seems like seconds just before a montage of birds and butterflies that somehow transitions in a parade. This is all nonsensical time-filler that takes waste to its highest painful degree. No golden cap to command the flying monkeys. No witch enthroned upon a seat of rubies. I can’t help but wonder if six year-olds in the ’30s found it all dumb and boring as well.

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Travel advisory for all visitors to the Land of Oz: They’ll break yer dang shoulders.

The Wizard himself is probably the most non-conventional depiction of the character I’ve seen. He’s more of a villain in this short as he sets the supersized fowl upon our heroes, though no explanation is given as to what the animators were drinking before creating this mind-boggling mess. I’m voting for furniture varnish. So lost in their stupor were they that they even forgot to put the lion in the story. R.I.P. courage.

If you’re into this kind of weird animation, I’d say check it out. Personally I can rest easy knowing that I’ll never put myself through this short again. There are better adaptions of Baum’s book and we all know that in a fight Chicken Boo would win against Cluckzilla any day.

Rating: Don’t bother.

tl;dr
Watch: He’s a giant chicken I tell you!
Don’t watch: A GIANT CHICKEN!

Flop Friday: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

Not Rated, 13 minutes, Fantasy

Starring: Bebe DanielsHobart BosworthRobert Leonard, and a bunch of weirdos

These days bonus features plague the home media market. I get it: they still don’t really know how they made King Kong, so they’ll forever document every second of the film making process. I think there’s only ever been three movies that I’ve eaten up all the special features for and quite frankly there’s too much mythos surrounding The Wizard of Oz (1939) to get the real story. The best I have come to hope for is additional movies packed with the main feature and I lucked out with not one, but five. Sometimes they’re awesome looks back and sometimes… they’re flops.

Straying far, FAR away from the classic film (because, you know, it came first) and also the source material, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gives us the earliest adaptation of Baum’s fairy-tale. Once again Dorothy (Daniels) takes flight to Oz with her loyal scarecrow (Leonard) and… herd of livestock… What???

While the basic story is intact, there are some bizarre–um, “creative” differences in this short. Most notably, a viewer is likely to notice how brisk the story is. With a run time of just 13 minutes, there isn’t much room for detail. Instead, each frame is a compacted mess of actors crowded together, overly ornate sets, and props that take up large portions of the screen.

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“Everyone move in…  A little closer…  A little closer… Fuse with the person next to you… Splice DNA… CLOSER!!!  …Perfect.”

Two bizarre things stick out the most when watching this. The first is the aforementioned livestock. By the end of the story Dorothy has started her own menagerie. There’s a mule, cow, dog, cat, and lion–all of which are people inside of ridiculous costumes. And… and… they dance. The animals dance. Oz’s court dances. His tailors… well, they flat-out could NOT dance if they had a gun put to their heads. With all the dancing going on, it’s makes you wonder why they didn’t try to act out more of the original story.  Kalidahs anyone?

In all this short film is nothing shy of forgettable. It comes and goes quickly, leaving you with the sense of wonder–wondering why you willingly let go a quarter of an hour of your life. Save yourself the trouble.

Rating: Don’t bother.

tl;dr
Watch: Because you’re a film nerd. NEEEERRRDDD!!!
Don’t watch: Period.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

G, 102 minutes, Fantasy

Starring: Judy GarlandRay BolgerJack HaleyBert Lahr

There are certain movies that make you believe in a sense of national identity; movies that might make you “un-American” for not having seen them. There can be no question that The Wizard of Oz is one of those films. The American fairy-tale turned Technicolor masterpiece has held a firm grasp on the role of being one of the most iconic Hollywood works of all time.

The story should no longer come as a surprise: Dorothy (Garland) finds herself whisked away from her dreary home in Kansas into the land of Oz via the Mother of All Tornadoes. She is to seek out the Wizard of Oz if she is to ever return home. Along the way she finds like-minded friends while being pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West and her minions.

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Yeah, but where does the RED brick road go?

It doesn’t take long to run head-first into the wonder of this film. After a short sequence of a dull black and white existence (and one seriously cool twister effect), Dorothy opens the door of her old life and steps into the magical juxtaposition of a full-blown color fantasy realm. The styles in this new place are different, the rules have changed, and everything is a sight to behold.

Can you just imagine being an audience member during an original screening? Living back in the ’30s you’ve maybe seen a handful of features (unless perhaps you resided in Tinseltown). You sit down to watch another black and white movie when–BAM!–midway through there’s an explosion of color! You’ve just gotten over the wonderment of talking films and here comes the sheer shock of seeing what might possibly have been your first color film. Okay, so just outside there’s already a well-established world of color, but we’re talking about media here, so stay focused!

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Saying something smart when everyone around you has no idea what you mean still makes you look stupid.

This film also brings a decent amount of special effects to the table: flying monkeys, burlap skin, crystal balls, curling feet, and non-CG extras. Yes, I find that impressive. People are abundant and it’s nice to see studios not be cheap when it comes to hiring extras. *ahem* And still there is that awe-inspiring tornado scene. If you didn’t see this movie as a kid,  then you’ll never know the feeling of having your mom try to scare the crap out of you by threatening to give you over to the witch and her monkeys. Blugh…

Finally, I’d like to touch on the characters. Our heroes are all searching for something they lack: intelligence, love, bravery, and a place they belong. They all feel like basic human needs.  It’s almost certain that a viewer can relate to one or more of these desires. What’s more our heroes simply agree to go along with the commands of the supporting characters. “You want to go home? Kill the witch.” “Okay…” I’m not sure if that speaks for spirit of the time or if it’s a flaw in the storytelling, but I’ll stick with the former.

Hopefully, dear reader, you are familiar with the story of Dorothy and her companions. If not (or if you’d like a refresher), I highly recommend you set aside a couple of hours to devote to one of the most well-known classics of cinematography.

Rating: Own it.

tl;dr
Watch: Striking use of color.
Don’t watch: If you’re made out of tin.

Images ©MGM