Decrying/Praising ‘The Book of Life’ and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

Kubo and the Two StringsWhat do you get when you add unbridled creativity to a project with limited substance?

Well, it’s possible something good may come out of it. In the case of The Book of Life (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), however, you get cinematic dreck.

I know—that’s rather harsh. But these two films may be among the dullest ones I’ve seen in recent years … and that’s quite a dubious feat, given the fact that they both feature gorgeous, colorful, imaginative animation; intriguing, folklore-inspired storylines (Mexican in TBOF and Japanese in KATTS); and heavy-duty casts (Zoe Saldana and Channing Tatum are among the headliners in the former, while Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are just two of the stars who lend their voices to the latter).

So what went wrong?

I dunno. I’ll tell ya, though: By the time the credits rolled for each of these pictures, I wanted to run the heck out of the theater and watch something simple on TV with a damn good script. Something without bells and whistles. Something without glossy, stylized CGI. Something with a plot that led somewhere credible.

Something that, uh … didn’t stink.

In the case of KATTS, I also wanted something that doesn’t have an inflated opinion of itself, which is evidenced by the bit at the end where the folks behind the gigantic ghostly skeleton demon that menaces our celluloid heroes during one scene in the flick show up in sped-up motion making the monster come to life. Yes, it was a Here’s How We Did It type of thing. Didn’t work for me. You know why?

The film, as a whole, blew.

And when that’s the case, I have no interest in understanding the methods behind the badness—how many technicians it took to screw in this lightbulb, how many clumps of material it took to create this image, how many pixels, etc. What I do have an interest in is how in the name of all that is nitrate anyone approved the horrible scripts that informed the action in TBOF and KATTS. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

The Book of LifeOK, maybe it’s tough to judge a screenplay objectively. We all have our own tastes. Still, the muddled nature of the dialogue in these pictures—which often led to unfunny mayhem or tedious exposition—showcases a problem that is much too evident in today’s movies: a focus on looks over meaning. TBOF and KATTS have some of the most sumptuous animation I’ve ever digested in the last decade. The textural details and little touches, from the designs of the landscapes to the expressions on the characters’ faces, are as superbly crafted as they come. There is nothing wrong with these flicks from a visual standpoint. Yet there is something wrong with them from a writing perspective. They’re a mess of poor editing and awful arc choices. Neither is believable. Both become tedious very quickly.

Even worse: Both give me the sense that their creators thought they could fly on the wings of an inventive style while offering the minimum amount of story development and comic repartee. Sad to say, they don’t. You can’t do a lot with a cartoon lacking foundation. These two films lack exactly that. Their ground is as shallow as a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular.

Still, they’re not the only ones suffering from this kind of lousy scribbling. It’s an epidemic that has infested the entire world of cinema, and there’s only one thing that can cure it of this debilitating affliction.

The composition and acquisition of better, more thoughtful scripts. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

Will Hollywood jump for that, though? In this era of slow-mo celluloid violence and deafening on-screen explosions, it’s not clear. I suspect things will always go as they’ve done in the recent past, and that’s toward a trend of loudness, bigness and all-too-overwhelmingness. Subtlety and nuance be damned, right? If the breakaway ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Cecil B. DeMilles of the new millennium could, however, see the light in the form of TBOL and KATTS, as they represent a novel type of feature with intriguing contextual possibilities. They’re off the beaten path in terms of subject matter and could have been improved if their screenplays were sharper. Perhaps a little tinkering in this vein could lead to something wonderful.

We deserve that, don’t we, as movie viewers? You can’t give us just the outer trappings of art and call it a total masterpiece. It’s got to include bits of everything: writing, editing, cinematography, acting, directing, music, and more. Miss one of these things, and you lose the complete whole.

TBOL and KATTS, I feel, lost this quite dramatically. But that doesn’t mean their successors won’t triumph in the long run.

If they do, we’ll have a much more delectable menu of cinematic savories, to be sure. I’ll be waiting for that time with a napkin in my lap. For when creativity and substance join together, good taste is bound to follow.

You can bet I’ll have an appetite at the moment it comes to pass.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

2 thoughts on “Decrying/Praising ‘The Book of Life’ and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

  1. I saw Kubo, and while I agree that the script was pretty thin, I found the visuals interesting enough that I didn’t feel I’d wasted the price of a ticket.
    Not something I’d watch twice, but once was good.

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