This stop-motion animation from the House of Laika moves on from their previous ‘Goth’ mentality to embrace ‘Japonisme’ in a visually lush fable; enchanting when it sticks to the subject of storytelling, less so as it descends into Martial Arts & Monsters. At first, the CGI-assisted puppets & effects hold stylistic unity as we meet a careworn, fearful Mother and her sunny, independent son (a town favorite for his epic storytelling shows). But once the afterlife spirits come down on them, and annihilate the town, the boy begins an orphan’s journey quest of recovery and the film overdoses on technical display. You also start to notice problems in character design, especially in the son’s jaunty personality (very All-American-boy), not helped by forced gags out of a DreamWorks focus group, and poor vocal acting.* Worse, you can see how this should have worked watching the marvelous first act as the kid holds the town in thrall with his origami creations acting out epic tales. Everyone buys into the fantasy of folded paper springing to life, acting out roles, dancing & fluttering to attention thru collective spirit & one boy’s power of suggestion. And a misconception, since instead of celebrating the power of storytelling magic as community will, the story makes this not a shared visualization, but something really happening. What a letdown. Still, the first act remains a treat. The rest, a battle lost; poetry-turned-prose, with the imaginative power of LESS succumbing to the commercial considerations of TOO MUCH.
DOUBLE-BILL: Laika projects tend to impress & enchant before coming up short. For a more rigorous stop-motion æsthetic, try them in CORALINE/09 or PARANORMAN/’12.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In the leads, Charlize Theron & Matthew McConaughey are so inadequate you think about switching to the film’s original Japanese language track (w/ subtitles), then remember they are the original soundtrack.