Sunday, August 28, 2016

Kingsglaive vs Kubo: Try Not to Cut Yourself on Your Cutting Edge

Last weekend two revolutionary cutting-edge animated feature films came out. This is unusual since on most weekends not a single revolutionary or cutting-edge animated feature film comes out. Just watch the trailer for "The Wild Life" - this is the kind of ambition-less crap that we usually get. But last weekend we were spoiled. Two ambitious studios, Laika and Square Enix, both dropped two of the most visually impressive films of the year. On two separate frontiers of animation, stop-motion and photo-realistic CG, their movies pushed the envelopes. On a technical level this is incredible stuff.

"Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV", the two hour trailer for the upcoming video game, is a step way beyond anything Square Enix has made before. There is serious graphical horsepower on display here, featuring a world and characters that could very easily fool you into being live action. The people still are slightly mutated Final Fantasy beings, with eyes a bit too large and their movements not quite right. But otherwise, it is a startlingly realistic-looking film.

Meanwhile, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is an incredible jump up from Laika's previous films, "Para-Norman" and "The Box Trolls". They're attempting a full action fantasy film with the artistic elegance and style of a Studio Ghibli production. They've kept their slightly twisted Laika style, but have something legitimately beautiful. All this is possible thanks to the possibilities of 3D printing for more detailed characters and faster production. Laika is showing that there is no limit to the potential of stop-motion animation.

But when you get past the technical level, one of these movies is a pile of shit. Unfortunately, Square Enix still can't actually tell a good story. Laika can.

I'm also going to make a confession here: I really did not want to talk about "Kingsglaive" because honestly there is not a lot to say. I have no choice but to talk about this movie thanks to various life choices. But let's not kid ourselves here. There is nothing special about "Kingsglaive" other than the animation. Square Enix has really done themselves a disservice here by using this extraordinary technology on such a pointless movie. It is not even that "Kingsglaive" is that terrible.

The problem is that "Kingsglaive" is so easy to dismiss that I don't think anybody even noticed the animation. I feel like I'm alone here. I'm stunned by something really amazing... but that amazing thing is just a cheap tie-in product to a video game that has bloated itself into a mass media campaign. The public and critics can just ignore this movie because as a movie it does not stand on its own. If you not interested in playing "Final Fantasy XV", there is no reason to watch this movie.

The plot even goes out of its way to try to be an unexciting as possible. Despite the the armies Ultima Weapons fighting Knights of the Round and the other nonsense, "Kingsglaive" is a boring movie. It shoots itself in the foot by its very place in the unnecessarily-sprawling "Final Fantasy XV" galaxy*. It's just a bunch of characters fighting and dying for Noctis, this still-unseen character who will star in the game. The characters in this movie, like its star Nyx, don't matter. You know he's doomed since he's not in the game. The villain he fights can't matter, because the real villains have real characters to deal with. Protecting the heroine, Stella Lunafreya, doesn't matter, because she has to live to reach the game. Thus there are no stakes.

It's cheap and cynical and a real shame. "Kingslgaive" is a product, not a movie. It is such a whore that it's willingly letting itself get gangbanged by product placement. Yeah, this is a far away universe with a past and history completely different from our Earth, but somehow Sony, Uniqlo, Audi, and fucking Beats headphones can cross universes like they're Gilgamesh, huh? Square Enix paid to get known actors like Sean Bean, Lena Hedley, and Aaron Paul to star in this. They're fine, but the cost of their casting shows. The rest of the cast are no-names who can barely act. Whoever is playing the fat guy can't even keep a consistent accent.

Animation of this caliber deserves better! Fifteen years ago Square (when it was just Square, no Enix yet) they made "The Spirits Within", a movie that could have been revolutionary. That movie featured a serious and adult story, but was animated. That sort of thing is still rarely given a chance here in the West. "The Spirits Within"'s animation style could create worlds and tell stories that were just impossible to do in 2001 in live action. But the story was crap, the characters were lame, most of the dialog was exposition. The movie was a mess, and it lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and was a huge disaster.

The only thing Square Enix has learned is that their film arm can't make money on its own. The movies must be tie-ins to other products with established fanbases. "Advent Children" could have been stick figures drawn on grid paper but if one of those stick figures was Sephiroth, millions of fanboys and girls around the world still would have eaten it up. That movie was not good either, by the way. Trust me, watch it again. The dialog is embarrassing and the only good part is the final fight scene. Same problems in "Kingsglaive", only the final fight scene lasts what feels like four hours and is between two characters you don't care about.

Ultimately though "Final Fantasy XV: The Game" might be where the interesting content lies. "Kingsglaive" is just a taste for its world. You have some cool action scenes and a unique weirdly modern fantasy world. At least Square Enix can still get the surface-level stuff right. As for fixing the actual structural problems that have plagued Square Enix stories for decades now? Meh. Really, what's a mere movie good for anyway when compared to 10,000 hours of content and a billion DLCs?

To show what movies are still good for, let's now talk about "Kubo and the Two Strings".

Nobody has missed how incredible the animation is here. The critics are salivating over how pretty "Kubo" is, and for good reason. Just compare the eyes of the characters in "Kubo" to the eyes of the characters in say, "The Nightmare Before Christmas". The eyes in this movie have this translucent quality, like porcelain, where the old eyes were flat and one-tone. Stop-motion has lost the crude clay-like texture for a full range of possibilities from long flowing human hair to a field of snow. Fast and clear battle scenes are now possible. The technical leaps in last few decades have allowed "Kubo and the Two Strings" to be like watercolor to "Nightmare"'s box of crayons.

But nobody would care how pretty "Kubo" was if the story did not back up the technology. Every movie ultimately is a wonder of advanced machinery and mass organization. What matters is how all that marvelous magic gets used. Can you tell a great story using these tools? With "Kubo and the Two Strings", the answer is yes.

"Kubo" is a Western interpretation of a Japanese fairy tale. It is also a musing on the nature of stories and the power of legend. Also it wants to discuss the power of humanity and emotion over the limits of divine perfection. And it's a full-fledged action fantasy film. And it's the story of a family and it's struggles across plenty of bizarre Kafka-esque transformations. This is a movie with a lot to say. It is a bold emotional story through many emotions and tones.

Our hero, Kubo is bound to be the star of a great legend. But he is also a storyteller himself, using his wind powers to animate origami heroes to the delight of his village. And much like a certain Kubo in our world, he struggles reaching an ending, since he packs his stories full of too much action and never gets to the point**. Characters in this movie are never quite evil, rather they have a different set of values. Kubo is a kind-hearted young boy full of humanity. His grandfather, the divine King of the Moon, wishes to tear our his remaining eye and turn him fully into a celestial being. Something perfect but also inhumane. Meanwhile, Kubo's companions are a monkey toy that has come to life and a cursed amnesic samurai that has turned been into a beetle. They are clearly imperfect and ridiculous, but they are good heroic people.

"Kubo" is a complicated piece of art. But every element of the story seems to reinforce its themes further. All the pieces just fit together with elegance and beauty, just like the Japanese art it is trying to emulate. "Kubo and the Two Strings" can be heavy and serious for a children's film, but the beautiful and whimsical nature of its art should win over any audience. Matthew McConaughey also puts in a solid comic performance, keeping things light. This movie has action, it has real emotions, it has gorgeous scenery. I don't want to meet the person that does not like "Kubo". If you don't like this movie, I don't like you.

Plus it has a pretty damn awesome cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

What should be clear here is that cutting edge technology does not really matter, unless you're doing something new and special with it. "Kingsglaive" aimed low and ended up being exactly what everybody figured it would be: a pointless side-product. "Kubo" wanted to push Laika's storytelling potential to the next level, and actually pulled it off. Its their best movie since "Coraline" and in some ways surpasses it.

Critics celebrate what "Kubo" has done because all the hard work and struggle behind the camera to create every single element had a point. It has things to say. Nobody cares about "Kingsglaive", not even Square Enix. Yeah, the animation quality is crystal clear, but all that is doing is illuminating how empty everything else is.

Now if only there was a "Kubo and the Two Strings" video game coming out this fall. I'd much rather go back to that universe than "Final Fantasy XV". (Sigh.) ...I'll try to stay positive about that game. No promises though. 

* No, I have nothing to say about "No Man's Sky". Please don't ask me.

** No, I have nothing to say about the "Bleach" manga finally mercifully ending last week. Please don't ask me.


  1. Hopefully Kingsglaive was the handjob Square needed to focus more on their games. It seems like every 6 years or so they need to make a a pretty, but crap, movie or video (Yes I'm still salty about Agni's Prophecy) and then they make a pretty good game afterwards.

  2. At this point, there's maybe a 0.1% chance FFXV can live up to the hype. But hey, when it takes half a decade after announcing a project to actually enter production on it, that's bound to happen.