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Nice try.

This is a tough one. In order to be a good critic, I have to get my biases out of the way. The Dark Tower books are pretty personal for me, so this movie was always going to be personal for me. I first read The Gunslinger when I was thirteen, pulling it down off the shelf to be my first Stephen King book, because the back cover said “fantasy” and the book seemed thin enough to get through quickly if I didn’t like it. I was living in a small town in Saskatchewan, halfway through what would be a pretty terrible year there. A year where I needed frequent escapes from bullying, poverty, and the brewing frustrations and confusions of puberty. I needed something like The Gunslinger, much like Jake Chambers maybe, and the series delivered. I followed it since, waiting for King to hurry up and finish with ten times the anticipation and fear than I could ever feel about A Song of Ice and Fire. I always knew that a movie version of The Dark Tower was inevitable, and that it would be a difficult sell (especially now) as is. I followed the production of this movie with a lot of trepidation but always a little bit of hope. As it neared release, article after article came out to talk about how troubled its production was, how compromised and messy the movie would be, and I settled down to very low expectations. And yet, this movie surprised me by how truly awful it is. I haven’t seen a movie this bad since Assassin’s Creed and it’s bad in almost exactly the same ways.

I’m not a megafan of anything, seldom letting fandom get in the way of what I like to think is an honest and critical appraisal of the stories and media I engage with. That said, there are two basic approaches to a movie like The Dark Tower. There’s approaching it as an adaptation and approaching it as a movie like any other. People generally conflate their reactions, especially if they don’t have a vested interest in film criticism as a craft, and so you’re gonna see a lot of reactions that blur the lines between reacting to how The Dark Tower fails as an adaptation and how it fails as a movie. But it does fail at both. If it was just a bad adaptation, I would be far more forgiving. I’m cool with adaptations that beat out their own path or try to present another take on a thing. My critical history is full of remarks to this effect, so I don’t think anyone could say that I don’t like The Dark Tower just because it’s a “bad Dark Tower movie”. Most of this review will be about how it’s just generally bad, but I will also talk about it as an adaptation. ‘Cuz I have to at least a little bit. I owe it to that kid who walked through Mid-World and beyond with Roland’s ka-tet.

Brass tacks is that The Dark Tower is exactly the kind of gutless, cut to death, and misguided genre movie that is cynically trying to ride the coattails of other genre hits. Particularly, in this case, the recent wave of “YA” movies, some good and some bad, which are made from “YA” books, some good and some bad. The Dark Tower puts minimal effort into every single distinguishing element until the result is boilerplate and meaningless. It casually name-drops bits of lore from the books like its trying to win a #nocontext contest and its few characters are underserved, inconsistent, and rushed through a movie that is probably thirty minutes too short. The result is incredibly rushed, messy, incoherent, and probably mostly frustrating for people who didn’t read the books but actually like fantasy and lore and shit. Those people will have precious little to grab onto here, as almost nothing is explained or presented in the movie meaningfully.

To try and summarize it in a sentence: imagine looking forward to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and getting Eragon instead. That, on every level, is what The Dark Tower is like.

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The most beautiful movie of 2016.

I saw Pete’s Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings within a day of each other and they were wonderful companion pieces. Both films represent the very best in movies for kids, even as they give the adults tons of thematic richness potentially too complex for the kids to fully understand. They’ll feel stuff that stays with them, that they won’t recognize as coherent until long after its taken root. That’s the power of movies like these.

I have been a fan of Laika since Coraline and I would argue that ParaNorman is a masterpiece… but Kubo and the Two Strings blows all their other work out of the water. This is a movie that bleeds ambition, beauty, confidence, and grace. Every frame is a work of art and the kind of spectacle that will leave you scratching your head when you realize just how much of this movie is stop-motion with paper dolls and puppets. In Laika films, CGI is used only to enhance and to give backdrops, but you will have a hard time believing that.

Kubo is one of the best adventure movies since The Lord of the Rings, featuring the same tropes of quest narratives that are so well established but also very much taken for granted. It’s also heavy in a way that might surprise you. More even than Pete’s Dragon, which has an indie movie softness of tone, Kubo presents moments of powerful emotional weight that are punctuated by wonder, happiness, and humor. This movie is so well realized that it’s almost shocking how good it is. 2016 has been kind of a dismal year for films, but kids’ movies have consistently been great and Kubo is the best of them.

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