The Buzz: The Best Movie and TV Show of the Summer are Animated

Welcome to a packed week of the Buzz as we celebrate animation. Who would have expected that the best film this summer would come out in August and not be named Suicide Squad and directed by the son of the founder of Nike. Yes, that shoe company. Then we look at a Netflix original animated series that has been breaking all the rules of television as well as my heart at the same time. Then we look back at an animated film from Japan that is celebrating its 25th anniversary by being released for the first time in America. Hollywood has been full of controversy this week as we explore how an Oscar favorite may have fallen out of the race due to a rape allegation that occurred over fifteen years ago, and once again the internet has voiced displeasure over diversity casting in a rebooted film.

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Film: Kubo and the Two Strings:  Animation is often times a painstaking process; slow and precise. Therefore, each and every image must be carefully considered in how they fit into the story in order to be perfect. You feel that painstaking attention to detail with every Laika film, a stop-motion animation company based out of Oregon. Their previous films have all been the picturesque macabre with Coraline and The Boxtrolls. Their images are striking like the Brothers Quay but whose emotional maturation matches that of Pixar.

With their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika may have finally made a masterpiece, a film that will leave a mark on the history of animation. Every production for Laika seems to be building its way to inform this fable of a one-eyed Japanese boy set on a journey. In a time when children’s films can afford to be dull looking eye candy with lazy prat falls, Laika shows the difference in having a film that can soar to the highest of emotional depths while being one of the most beautiful looking films of all time.

What complements each frame is a story to match its visual complexity. The film follows the traditional hero’s journey archetype where Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) lives with his grief-stricken mother on a cliff right outside of a village. The PTSD of Kubo’s father’s death has rendered his mother to suffer through bouts of forgetfulness and at times consciousness. When she does have her bearings, she would tell Kubo about his father, the might warrior Hanzo, whose life was sacrificed to protect his son’s remaining eye from Kubo’s grandfather, The Moon King.

Kubo shares his mother’s love of storytelling by recounting these tales to the villagers, playing his shamisen (a Japanese three-stringed lute) causing papers to fly through the air to recreate the images of his stories. Each different form of storytelling gives different textures to Laika’s animation as they combine puppetry with stop-motion and CGI, utilizing the advent of 3D printing to give depth to characters. The film makes sure to awe you exactly the same way the audience in the film is awed by Kubo.

Kubo soon learns that these myths and legends of his lineage were not just stories but true as he is attacked by his grandfather’s henchmen, his twin aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara), creepily masked by traditional Noh spirit faces. Kubo’s mother, in a moment of clarity, sacrifices herself so Kubo could escape. Soon, Kubo finds himself with a curmudgeonly overprotective monkey (voiced to perfection by Charlize Theron) and a beetle samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Kubo embarks on his hero journey to gather the items he needs to stop his grandfather.

The film is steeped in Japanese culture but, unlike Mulan, it never tries to appropriate it despite the disappointing lack of Asian American voice actors. Japanese culture is shown with the deepest reverence that it is almost surprising that Kubo and the Two Strings is not based on any preexisting myth or manga. The film follows in the tradition of the best of Japanese animation by giving depth to the magical realism of its story. Miyazaki films were never just what they appear to be.  

The film does not disrespect it viewers just because of the age group that they are targeting. The film’s themes on a child’s viewpoint on grief and lost is at the emotional core but never the explicit subject that Pixar has succumbed to in recent year. This film is the ultimate example of a film that shows rather than tell. For many people this film will speak to them on different levels, whether it is the impact of parents’ influence on a child’s life before birth to when the parents are gone, or if it is the way children deal with grief of the passing of people who means most to you.

Director and CEO of Laika, Phil Knight and his crew painstakingly relays this through the imagery that they create. Following the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, a Buddhist philosophy about the beauty in imperfection, the audience is privy to seeing the seams in the animation. This is not the perfect rivers of The Good Dinosaur. No, but the stop-motion beauty relies on the artificial precision of its subject. The human face is imperfect but beautifully soulful and within these clay figures, there is as much soul radiating through these figures as there is in a living breathing human being.

Yet, the film is meta-textual, speaking about the importance of storytelling. The main character, Kubo, is a storyteller himself. But, his stories serve a purpose. It is about remembrance, not only on those who are gone but of the true virtue of the people who are still here. Memories and stories are connected in this film because they serve the same function. And my memory will always remember the story of Kubo and the Two Strings.  

Television: The Best Show on TV now is BoJack Horseman: Animation also affords creators to touch upon subjects that other creators would not touch with a ten-foot pole. In the three seasons of the animated show BoJack Horseman, the show has dealt brilliantly with nuance subjects on depression, loneliness, insecurities, death and substance all while being one of the funniest Hollywood satires ever. By being a cartoon with anamorphic animals blended with humans, it seems as if we are more willing to laugh and cry with these heavy subjects that are punctuated with moments of levity or animal puns. Maybe, it is just the other way around.

The show is a bizarre version of Hollywood, in which BoJack Horseman, a washed up star of an TGIF-style family sitcom, tries to navigate his narcissism and potential sociopathy with his Hollywood career. Oh, and he is horse, if you did not get that from his name. This season builds on the self-destructive tendency from the last. BoJack, despite sabotaging his chance at his dream role as Secretariat was replaced by a CGI performance (ala Tupac) of himself that was so charismatic, the studios used it for the entire movie. The performance has chances to be an Oscar contender but once again good things do not go well for BoJack.

BoJack Horseman is the rare show in which every decision by every character has some weight to it from episode to episode. Like life, this cast the domino effect in how people react and perceive. Something that movies seem to be missing is stakes and BoJack Horseman has plenty of stakes. Every mistake that he has done from the last season and every person he treats badly in this one all comes to a devastating conclusion and surprising results.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a virtual unknown coming until creating this series, has a created a show that lets him systematically explore interesting characters while taking narrative risks. In one episode of the latest season, the episode is almost in silence as BoJack tries to do something good to appease his guilt in a city underwater. Then in another episode, the framing narrative is that of BoJack trying to get rid of his magazine subscription. Waksberg is using television and animation to its fullest both from a dramatic character perspective and from a comedy perspective. It’s one thing to be heartbreaking and make someone cry. It is another to also be one of the silliest shows on television at the same exact time.

While there is so much content on television nowadays, I cannot possibly see a show like BoJack Horseman being made at any other point in time. But, in the scramble for content, the cream rises the top. The only thing is that this cream is filled with my tears.

All three seasons of BoJack Horseman is out on Netflix.

Rewind: Only Yesterday: To stick with the animation theme, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray is the classic Studio Ghibli classic Only Yesterday. Although released in Japan in 1991, this animated film from Isao Takahata of Graves of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya fame, only got its American release earlier this year. This film was influential in that it allowed an animated feature to be one for adults about adult issues. This film follows a single woman in a crossroads in her life in her early thirties as she reminisces about her childhood as an 11-year old. This is a film dealing with adult themes with no signs of fantasy or magical realism. This film was a turning point as Takahata’s success and work influenced his partner, Hiyao Miyazaki to create more mature work leading to works like The Wind Rises. If you love anime or good storytelling, Only Yesterday is the film for you.

In The Loop: Bad news is starting to come from the highly anticipated film Birth of a Nation after allegations of star/director Nate Parker’s rape scandal bubbled back up to the surface. The American Film Institute just cancelled a screening and Q&A it had scheduled for Friday after the response last week when media begun publishing about Parker’s rape case that occurred while he was attending Penn State. While he was not convicted, his roommate who has co-story by credit on the film, Jean McGianni Celestin was convicted and sentenced to a six-month prison sentence. This renewed scrutiny on the case has come after Birth of a Nation broke the record at the Sundance Film Festival for highest paid film after Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for the film’s distribution rights. The film was seen as an early frontrunner for Oscars so it will be interesting to see how the controversy plays itself out as the movie is scheduled to be released in October.

In other places of controversy, Spider-Man: Homecoming has announced Disney Channel star, Zendaya as the role of Michelle which many think is a code name for Mary Jane Watson. Because Zendaya is half white and half African American, many people have gone to social media to protest her casting as the redheaded love interest of Spider-man because of her race. Some have even gone to say that this is further black washing of superhero films. I condemn anyone who thinks this way as there is nothing that integral to the race of Mary Jane Watson. For those who complain about people of color who complain about white washing in Hollywood that is often because white people are allowed to take the few roles for POCs. Many times, these roles are integral to the character themselves like in Aloha when Emma Stone plays half Hawaiian and half Chinese. Mary Jane Watson does not have to be white.

Comcast, which also owns NBCUniversal, has just purchased DreamWorks Animation in a $3.8 billion deal last week. The deal also sees Comcast buying out current DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, with a severance package of $391 Million, and DreamWorks Animation Head Ann Daly. The animation studio was best known for producing Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda.

Finally, sticking with our animation themed issues, the animation company that made Sausage Party finds themselves in hot water. Nitrogen Animation Studios, a Canadian animation company, is being sued by animators and the labor union for being paid to work unpaid overtime while working on the Seth Rogen R-rated comedy. Local Unifor 2000, a Vancouver based union is representing 1,200 workers who have filed a complaint against the company. Some even alleged that they were denied credit on the film. Nitrogen has been accused of exploiting a loophole by calling their worker high tech professionals that allows them to bypass the normal 40-hour work week without being paid overtime. This has certainly put a damper on the comedy of Sausage Party.