Five years ago during a brief moment of inspiration, I sat down at a computer keyboard and pounded out the following words about Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”: as ambitious as it is pretentious, the movie is as much a statement about the arrogance of its director as it is about one’s place in this world, which seems to be all about behaving childishly as a response to strict parenting rather than, you know, anything as profound as the images that surround it. That essay was never finished – among many others in the quietest writing period of my life – which may have been a blessing in some oblique manner. If hindsight is the tool that changes the way we look at things, then it became a valuable asset during a recent revisit of said opus, many moons after I had made a point never to see it again. Had I been wrong in my observations? Or just naïve? Perhaps the definition of my reality had given me cause to question what the director’s obligations were to his own thesis. For me, the broad context of the universe meant more than the idea of a mere kid moving in between attitude problems and parental persecution. But now I see that our little space is as relevant as we make it, and to deny the small things that make us who we are is to negate the point of asking the broader questions.
And so once again I find myself confronted by the unnerving horrors of the Black Hill Forest, the site of a fable that haunts visitors who wander in for a glimpse of the evil hidden between trees. That legend is of course the notorious Blair Witch, a cursed demonic entity that rose to infamy in the whispers of superstitious townsfolk over two centuries and then gained added footing when three young filmmakers disappeared in search of her existence. It’s been over 20 years since those famous events transpired in the frames of a documentarian’s handheld cameras, but little has dissuaded the curiosity of outsiders – including the brother of one of those missing three, who comes of age and decides, perhaps justly, that there is still validity in wondering about the strange events. What happened to his sister all of those years ago? How come her footage was found, but not a trace of her or her two peers? Is she really dead, or does she remain in the woods as an eternal slave to the demonic energies of the witch? You’d think that nearly two decades worth of time would calm the turbulence of those suspicions, but I guess some malevolent spirits never lose their potency when they know cameras might be rolling.
One of the lost pleasures of the movies is going into a theater and gaining the sense that you have been absorbed in the far reaches of a new imagination. Just 16 years into a century of technical breakthroughs and creative dexterity, so few endeavors ever deal with concepts as novel as they are thorough. But “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a new stop-motion animated film from Laika Entertainment, is the antithesis of that belief, a film of nourishing visual insights and visionary storytelling that inspires as thoroughly as it dazzles. And that’s a surprise worth noting when one becomes aware of how taxing the endeavor must have been on its visual artists, who logged countless hours on building elaborate sets and crafting intricate details for a story set in medieval Japan. What inspired them to take the route they did, especially when the premise they were working with felt tailor-made for the styles of Hayo Miyazaki? Helmed by Travis Knight (who was among the skilled animators of “The Box Trolls” and “Coralline”), what pulsates on screen is nothing short of a remarkable artistic achievement, willfully empowered by clever facets in the edges and characters that have the adventurous spirit of some of the classic Disney heroes.