Category Archives: Film review

Kubo and the Two Strings, a review from a Christian mom

kubotwostringsKubo and the Two Strings, a feature film released in 2016
I hour, 42 minutes
Produced by Universal Studios, rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril

I’d heard this anime-style tale praised by some in the industry, so I decided to watch it. My takeaway: for Christian family viewing, don’t let your children watch it without a discussion from you about the various non-Christian elements in the story. For example: identifying ancestor worship as a substitute for knowing and loving the real God.

Kubo’s story is a hero tale, where a boy and two companions–a magical monkey and a human/cockroach–go on a quest to retrieve some charmed armor that is supposed to protect the boy from the awful sorcerer witches who are out to kill him. It doesn’t help that the witches are his aunts, and they’ve just killed his mother. His father vanished when he was very small.

There’s a lot of magicking going on: On the part of the boy (who uses origami magic to tell stories). On the part of the terrifying aunts, who throw bolts of energy around and destroy the village where the boy’s friends live. On the part of his dying mother, who is somehow able to bring the boy’s monkey figurine to life. But not everyone can do magic. The villagers apparently can’t.

There’s ancestor worship. As if they are deities, the ghosts of ancestors appear to loving families in the village, bring peace, give blessing, and then go away. Puzzling to a Christian child, surely.

The quest is for magical armor to protect Kubo from his aunts. On the quest, the nagging monkey and the ditsy cockroach-guy do their committed best to help and protect Kubo, at total risk to their own lives.

SPOILER ALERT

Finally, in a big battle, the two protectors succumb. His evil aunts reveal that the monkey was in fact the spirit of his mother, and the cockroach a transformed version of his father. No wonder the monkey and cockroach were so endearing with Kubo and with each other.  But now, with no helpers, what can Kubo do?

The magic armor doesn’t seem to be helping, so he throws it away. Kubo decides to use love instead. He strings his magical banjo with two strings he’d never thought to use before: from bracelets he has made of the hair of each of his loving parents. Behold, the blast of magical force from these two strings dispatches the evil aunts and also the evil grandfather. Love conquers.

Kubo has, by himself, saved the day for him and his village. But he is lonely. Soon the ghosts of his parents appear and seem to comfort him. And then the real person of his grandfather shows up. Instead of an evil monster, he’s now just a forgetful old guy who can’t see very well.

I found this ending puzzling. What is evil according to the writers of this tale? Something that morphs into harmlessness? I know Eastern religions think good and evil are two sides of the same coin, not really different from each other. Perhaps that is the point of this. A good thing to discuss with your kid. Is evil real? How do we know?

 

 

 

 

 

Alice in Wonderland Movie Review

by Jim Tudor

Tim Burton has built a major career for himself with his particular brand of “outsider cinema”. This one-time outcast from the Disney Animation Studios is now one of the pre-eminent visual stylists in the world of filmmaking. His success has been such that major studios are willing spend untold millions to be in the Tim Burton business. Ironic, then, that this former outsider has become one the great, rare success stories in Hollywood, a land known for its blind conformity and lack of new vision. Then again, Burton himself has generally had nothing new to say since his earliest, most triumphant works. Perhaps it is this stunted artistic growth that leads to the conclusion that Tim Burton had in fact fallen into the Hollywood spin-cycle long ago, forever recycling his unique twisted visions into a string of overblown but commercially viable variations on the theme of “I’m a weirdo and no one understands me.”

His latest film, Disney’s colorful but dull “Alice in Wonderland”, brings the dualistic nature of Burton’s career to the forefront. On the surface, it embraces madness, claiming from the get-go that “some of the best people are absolutely mad”. But beneath that repeated claim, “Alice in Wonderland” is an almost shockingly conventional tale – a Campbellian hero’s journey, complete with Alice’s final sword-wielding showdown against a dragon, preceded all the while by her strongly felt denials that she is in fact “the one”. This sort of conventionality seems to fly in the face of the oddball freeform quality of Lewis Carroll’s original stories. But then, this is in fact not Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” at all; it is in fact a sequel. This is the very first problem one encounters with this film – the highly deceptive title.

The film centers on a nineteen year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), an outsider in aristocratic Victorian London. Not content with the era’s rigid notions of womanhood, we once again have a typically anachronistic female movie heroine – a character with values plucked from today but belonging to an earlier, contradictory time and place. This version of Alice only vaguely recalls her previous childhood trip down the rabbit hole. Once she returns as a young adult, the story becomes a series of overly familiar vignettes as she unknowingly repeats so much of what has gone before.

“Alice in Wonderland” looks, sounds, and feels like a typically overblown Tim Burton venture, complete with swirled tree branches, an overly-familiar Danny Elfman score, and plenty of his stock talent: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Christopher Lee voicing maybe two lines, tops, of the evil Jabberwock beast whom Alice must destroy in true Arthurian style. In this final battle, “Alice in Wonderland” turns into a “Narnia” movie on acid. It is a huge final battle that the audience is expected to take seriously, and yet it is stocked with cartoony talking mice and other obviously computer generated animals that are peppered amid the human chaos of it all. Silly white rabbits in topcoats running from dramatic flaming destruction just don’t add up.

But never mind all of that – “Alice in Wonderland” is just plain difficult to watch. Gaudy colors and shallow artifice everywhere, all of it overflowing with annoying, overacted eccentric weirdos. (Although it must be said that Depp has a few nice grace moments as the Mad Hatter.) The focal planes are downright screwy at times – foreground, middle ground, and background characters all in sharp focus while the background itself is in proper soft focus. For all of Burton’s visual flourishes, this aspect is a major failure. Perhaps it was meant to evoke a pop-up book, but instead it delivers a potentially headache-inducing experience.

I’m not trying to out-and-out condemn Burton for foregoing true artistic statements in favor of his trademark, huge, artifice. The man has forged a career doing what he loves, his way, in a town where few can make it. But bigger budgets and more impressive casts do not equal artistic growth – but that’s really all Burton has to show for himself after all these years. Not every movie with a large budget needs to justify its existence by having an artistic point, but this one is just a mess, devoid of fun. An overblown retread of a thousand other stories, “Alice in Wonderland”’s various odes to madness are superficial, hollow, and hypocritical.

Christian parents may appreciate knowing that nightmarish and surreal imagery abound in this film, not unlike all of Tim Burton’s other work. The film is built on its own overblown design, and ultimately betrays the anarchic spirit of Lewis Carroll by going the conventional Hollywood route. Those looking to expose their children to the central ideas of this film, which is a story of a spirited girl who must come to the realization that putting on one’s armor and taking up one’s sword – a metaphor in all our lives in one way or another – will likely find it a dull and lifeless retread of that idea, which is played out so much more effectively in “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, and “Star Wars” films.

On a more specific note, there is a gratuitous extreme close-up of a beast getting one of its eyes plucked out that may trouble some. Also, although nineteen year old Alice does grow and shrink out of her many dresses throughout the film, it is only the idea of that, not the presentation of that which is sexualized here. All in all, this element is very latent, but I would argue that it is there. In any case, “Alice” is a trip not worth taking.

– Jim Tudor

Avatar, a Goddess Movie

The movie Avatar is setting some box office records. Since it’s fantasy/sci fi, my preferred genre, I decided to check it out.

Avatar is set at some time in the future, when humans have destroyed the green things on earth and are bent on spreading the destruction to a beautiful Eden-like planet, Pandora, six light-years away.  There’s a mineral there, “unobtanium” or something like that, which corporate greedsters will do anything to get. Unfortunately, the mineral underlies a major home base of the beings who inhabit Pandora.

The lead character, Jake Sully, is a marine confined to a wheelchair. He finds himself incorporated into a science experiment on Pandora where he guides a cloned Pandoran body from a special capsule. Although he has no ability to run in his regular body, he can command the cloned body as if it were his own. It’s the ultimate video game–he gets to become the character, at least as long as the character is awake.  I suppose this is the reason for the name of the movie. Avatar has come to mean “a computer user’s representation of himself,” according to Wikipedia.

As the story progresses, Jake’s alter ego learns the ways of the Pandorans. He falls in love.  He is supposed to be the intermediary between the colonialist humans and the Pandorans.  But the negotiations fail–the Pandorans don’t want to become anybody’s colony. Thanks to action on the part of the planet’s goddess, there is a happy ending, at the expense of the humans.

What do I think?

This movie promotes pantheism. The goddess Eywa is in everything and may respond to supplications, but she can’t be depended upon to take a moral position. She seeks balance, and may allow the bad guys their way for that reason.  She doesn’t seem to be a person, but more of a force. Actually, she seems to be The Force from Star Wars, renamed as feminine and re-cast in a gorgeous setting. I suppose she takes action here because her planet is threatened.

Clearly it isn’t a Christian movie.  So, should you let your kids see it?

Let’s compare it to the Harry Potter movies.  Many Christians objected to Harry Potter because there is sorcery involved.  The author, not a Christian, nevertheless creates a world where there are good wizards and evil wizards.  The good wizards struggle with the evil ones and eventually win. Can this be drawing our children into an acceptance of sorcery?  Could be, but I think most readers are able to see the moral tale. Of course, there is no personal God acting in the Harry Potter tales, so they are hardly uplifting.

Avatar however will tend to pull our children away from a moral way of seeing, toward a yin-yang mentality where good and evil are seen as two sides of the same coin, and the deity is in everything and inside us too. This balanced Eastern concept of God is entirely false, we know as Christians.  Where is the sinner in need of a savior?  Where is our holy God?

What’s particularly troubling is that, according to Becky Miller who did some research, there are some Christian bloggers who think this movie is Christian.  Are some in the church stepping onto the inviting slippery slope that Hollywood offers?

I would like to re-imagine this movie with Jehovah as the God who responds to supplications and saves the planet. He is holy and we are not. That would come out strongly. Through the work of Jesus, he has built a bridge to us. He hears our prayers. He acts. He heals. He guides. The resulting movie might be more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the Chronicles of Narnia.

Here’s my challenge to you, Christians in Hollywood:  create a new fantasy movie starring Jehovah. Thanks to the people who made Avatar, the tools are there to create a lush fantasy world that displays characters with human emotions.  Why not use this to tell the world about our loving, holy God?

Avatar, the Last Air Bender, a Review

Avatar, the Last Air Bender
The Complete Book 1 Collection: a DVD collection of the
anime cartoon series by Nickelodeon 2005
(Further DVD’s available for the rest of the series, through 2008)

Worldview:  Moral, without an apparent higher power. Eastern flavor; spirits occasionally join the action.

My kids enjoy watching DVD’s of this set of anime animated tales. It’s popular among their peers.  I think it’s time we took it apart.

One review pegs the creation of this series to the advent of Harry Potter, and a demand for more complex, fully-conceived children’s TV.  This series has an overarching story and an eventual final episode that wraps up the loose ends.  It has a well-formed story line.

It portrays a world where there are four nations. They are named after the elements: earth, water, air, and fire.  The conflict is provided by the Fire Nation, which is trying to take over the other nations and has, at the beginning of the series, succeeded in wiping out the Air Tribe–with the exception of Aang, who has been sleeping in a iceberg for 100 years.

Certain individuals in each tribe have super abilities called “bending,” which involve ability to use the element special to their tribe for martial-arts style fighting, or for feats of superhuman strength.  Others don’t have these abilities at all.  Benders in the Water Tribe can gesture to throw ice crystals. Benders in the Fire Nation can throw fire. Benders in the Earth Kingdom can gesture to throw rocks and open cracks in the earth. Air Nomad benders can create winds. There is only one individual who can learn to bend all four, and that is the Avatar.

The Avatar is assigned the task of bringing peace among the four nations.  It appears to be a position somewhat like the Tibetan Buddhists believe about the Dalai Lama.  When an Avatar dies, his spirit goes to the spirit world, and another Avatar is soon born and identified. So it’s sort of a reincarnation cycle. The Avatar dresses like a young Buddhist monk.

The Avatar at any given time has the ability to travel to the spirit world and discuss things with his predecessors. Since he can learn all types of bending, he can become very powerful. But the Avatar in these stories is only 12 years old and has a lot to learn. This is Aang.

It is never discussed where the Avatar’s assignment comes from.  Perhaps the writers of this series are assuming an Eastern sort of God, who isn’t a person at all but rather more of a life force.  In one episode the Moon is shown to be a person, of sorts, or a goddess? It’s not clear. However, my kids aren’t out to worship the moon goddess because of watching this episode. They can tell it is fantasy.

I believe the Eastern idea of morality is really more a matter of tribal loyalty. Instead of a story with bad guys and good guys, there would be a story of Group 1 versus Group 2.  The groups wouldn’t differ markedly except in their allegiances. (If I am wrong, please set me straight!)

But this set of tales is made by Nickelodeon, which is American. The writers are Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. These sound like American names, not Japanese names. I suppose this is why the bad guys, the Fire Nation, really do behave like bad guys.  The primary bad guy Fire Lord Ozai is ruthless, even to his son. My kids told me they think that the Fire Nation behaves like the Japanese did in World War II, trying to take over the world.

So the Avatar is a tale with a moral compass. It is full of well-developed characters, including plucky kids who don’t give up. There is a satisfying happy ending.  But the tale also has some Eastern mythology underlying it. You can decide whether to expose your kids to it.–Phyllis Wheeler