Last weekend my husband and I saw my favorite movie of the summer, and one I would recommend with all my heart to any and all fantasy lovers: Laika Animation Studios’ Kubo and the Two Strings. This movie stands out like an oasis of color and light against the shadowy gray landscape that is 2016 summer cinema. Some of the reasons are obvious even to those who haven’t seen it. It’s not a remake or reboot of anything. It’s not a sequel to anything. It’s not a showcase for already-known characters. It offers what no other mainstream summer release seems to have bothered with at all: the thrill of discovery, an exciting journey into an unfamiliar world. Then, when we actually see the film, we find a joyous (though not always happy) affirmation of the power of the Creative Force — music, stories — and the transformative strength of love. I can’t think of any other movie this summer that so successfully hits both those notes. If you’re reading this blog, chances are very good you will like this movie. If you haven’t seen it already, please go. It deserves to be a hit.
Yet as much as I loved this movie — and my love grew upon reflection, in the hours and days after I saw it — I couldn’t dismiss a tiny wrinkle of regret that the hero was, like at least eighty percent of the heroes in all family films made since the 1970s, a boy. Laika’s first big movie, Coraline, did present proof that an American animated movie about a girl who wasn’t a Disney princess could succeed at the box office, but since then, in ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, they’ve followed in lock-step the male lead pattern of animated films in general, with female characters cast as vengeful villainesses, shallow bimbette sisters, and unpleasantly shrewish sidekicks, all foils for the good-hearted, brave, and unorthodox boy heroes. Kubo does improve upon its immediate predecessors in that Charlize Theron’s Monkey character is given more dimension than sidekicks usually get (though I can’t say too much about her for fear of Spoilers), and it helps that she’s a total badass in battle. But still, she’s not the day-saver, the difference-maker. That responsibility is left, as per usual, to the boy.
“Why couldn’t Kubo have been a girl instead?” is not entirely rhetorical, since nothing in plot or even personality demands the character be male. Masculinity isn’t a prevailing theme. There’s no love interest. The character embodies no traits traditionally perceived as male, like physical strength and aggression (interestingly, Monkey gets those). The most I can figure is that the writers decided that in feudal Japan, a little girl couldn’t have earned money as a storyteller — but then, in feudal Japan, malevolent forces didn’t sail down from the heavens to cause mayhem, either. It’s a fantasy. It could have worked. And if the writers had just taken that tiny step and made the character female, she would have joined my pantheon of favorite fantasy heroines of all time, for she would have embodied the very characteristics I love most to see in female guise: creativity, courage, and love. I probably would have seen the movie three times by now.
Now for the tough question: why does it matter? Why couldn’t I enjoy Kubo just as much as a boy? Truthfully, it shouldn’t matter at all — and perhaps it wouldn’t, if three or four more animated or at least family-film female leads were out there at the same time, in movies just as good if not better than Kubo. Yet as long as female leads are so vastly outnumbered by male leads in animated films, and as long as those female leads are so specifically gendered in ways that Kubo is not (that is, assigned plots and traits that dictate the lead could only have been female), I will regret the lack and ponder what could have been.
Nonetheless, Kubo and the Two Strings remains a bright spot in a summer full of film and TV disappointments (for me). What’s wrong out there?
No real feminist triumphs — particularly compared with last summer, in which we saw Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Trainwreck, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Testament of Youth. What have we this year? Well, Ghostbusters. My husband and I both enjoyed this reboot, and a lot of our friends did too, but on the whole, response to Paul Feig’s movie has been tepid, and we probably won’t see a sequel. The success of a Fury Road or an Inside Out or a Trainwreck, which might have made Hollywood big shots sit up and take notice, is conspicuous by its absence this year.
Too many dead female TV characters. Two separate shows I watched to the bitter (and I do mean bitter) end — shows I won’t name, to avoid Spoilers — featured powerful female characters sacrificing their lives for the sake of a group of mostly male characters. While I did like both the characters in question, I can’t be happy with the equation of female heroism with death/annihilation, particularly when my interest in the female survivors is mild at best.
Third time not the charm for the Captain America series. I did like Captain America: Civil War, particularly any moment involving Black Panther, who has presence to burn and whose solo outing I eagerly anticipate. Yet the first two Captain America movies stood out for me as offering the most satisfying depictions of women I’d seen in any superhero movie other than The Incredibles — Peggy Carter in the first film, Black Widow in the second. So I couldn’t help feeling let down that in the third film, while Black Panther and Spiderman got a chance to shine, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch had little more than walk-on parts. Scarlett Johannson made the most of her few moments, but the writers haven’t figured out what to do with Elizabeth Olsen. In the end, the ladies proved irrelevant, never getting to make the difference that even Ant-Man did in five minutes of screen time. In this movie summer, if you want a heroine, and Ghostbusters isn’t your thing, your best bet is Pixar’s Finding Dory.
The scarcity of heart. One of the more unusual films of the year has been Love and Friendship, a witty and skillfully made adaptation of a novella from early in Jane Austen’s career. It’s an amusing film, and I would recommend it, but despite the title, there’s precious little love or friendship in evidence. The female lead is an amoral schemer, and the closest thing we get to a “good” female character is a passive, whimpering drip with whom it’s hard to sympathize. On the surface it couldn’t be more different from squalid, dark-hued action-fests like Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, yet they have one crucial similarity at their core: an overall tone of heartlessness. These movies ask us to watch with fascination the antics of their characters, but we’re never called upon to make an emotional investment. We watch, we laugh, we snicker, we gasp, but we don’t care. Has caring really gone so far out of fashion? I don’t think I want to know.
Maybe things will get better at the movies as the year goes on. In the meantime, I have many lovely books to read.
Black Panther was easily my favorite part of Captain America: Civil War. I’m really excited for his solo movie.
You’re right that the movies this summer haven’t been great for female leads. I’ve seen Ghostbusters and Finding Dory. Also X-Men, but I wouldn’t recommend that one for female characters. Last Christmas also gave The Force Awakens and the last Hunger Games movie. This year is looking especially bereft by comparison.
At least we have a new Star Wars film to look forward to.
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