Year Released: 2004
Distributor: Wellspring Media
Running Time: 95 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 12+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For fans of: I don’t know what to say since I can think of no other film that matches the aesthetics of Strings.
-This review covers the English dub.
-This film won the 2006 Robert Award for Best Children’s Film.
That’s right…a movie with marionettes. I know you’re thinking something along the lines of Thunderbirds or Team America: World Police. However, it’s nothing like those things and it’s a whole ‘nother experience altogether. Dare I say something entirely unique and something you can take seriously?
Strings is Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s project that involves an epic fantasy adventure. The story starts with the King Kahro writing a note for his son Prince Hal. He warns his son about his treacherous brother Nezo and his right-hand man Ghrak while also apologizing for something horrible he did. Kahro then commits suicide before his brother comes in and makes his death look like a homicide committed by a rival tribe of people called the Zeriths which leads Hal and his people into a war with that faction.
This is some Shakespearean-level stuff with the plot and political intrigue amongst all the action and characterization, but with puppets. What makes Strings really stand out is the visual presentation with lush scenery and a huge effort done for world-building. The characters all know that they are puppets and the strings literally give the characters life. If a string that’s attached to a body part gets cut, then it’s the equivalent of being amputated. If the head string is cut, then it’s an instant death right there. There are scenes where a bunch of characters is close together and you see tons of black strings together heading skyward. Babies are born by being crafted and people have to thread the strings to make sure they are born. Some characters can even “fly” which is similar to how puppeteers jerk the string the right way. Even the prisons have a very unconventional look. Instead of typical bars or cages, there are horizontal ceilings with squares on top that restrict movement since they block the strings from on top. That is just sheer creativity.
The characters are quite good. Hal (the main protagonist) starts out as a hero who lets emotions and even bigotry get the best of him before he develops into a strong leader even despite discovering the atrocities his father committed without him knowing. Zita who is part of the Zerith tribe is a determined and smart character who is way more than some “strong female characters” that most writers write to pander to some viewers. She’s definitely capable of beating up the guys, but she is much more than her combat prowess. Erito is a stoic commander who assists Hal, but he’s faced with a complex situation once his family becomes targeted. The villains really stand out to me. Nezo could have been your typical evil genius character, but he really is manipulative in subtle ways. Not to mention he straight up dares Hal (his OWN nephew, mind you) to kill him later on in the movie. It’s a breath of fresh air to see villains who aren’t cowards. Ghrak is quite fascinating because he’s a villain who didn’t have to end up the way he did. He starts out as a crippled veteran from the last war with the Zeriths, but let’s say he becomes way more powerful in a very disturbing way later on. I won’t spoil his backstory or development, but his character arc was fascinating that you don’t see too often.
I enjoyed the themes presented. This could have been a write-off of Hamlet, but the plotting and themes make it way more than that. Some topics such as warfare, genocide, colonization, imperialism, the cycle of vengeance, slavery, classism, and diaspora get covered. They show it instead of telling it most of the time and it doesn’t talk down to the audience in how they present these issues. Strings also adds moral complexity with the good guys being flawed (and that’s not even getting into Kahro’s past crimes) and the villains are more than the typical mustache-twirling maniacally laughing ones seen in Bond movies or Saturday morning cartoons.
There are some flaws to this unique film though. Zita does spout a lot of exposition when the Zeriths do an interpretive dance about their tribe’s history especially since some of it was already shown earlier. Another one involves Hal and Erito being painted to disguise themselves as nomads was a bit questionable since some could interpret it as being in blackface/brownface. I can see the logic in that argument, but the method was much different. It does become a major plot element given their relationship with the Zeriths and also with a prophecy that obviously fits Hal despite Zita not knowing at first.
All in all, Strings is a wholly unique film experience that I recommend to animation fans or people who like artsier fantasy films.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like puppetry
Add 1 point if you like non-traditional animation films
Subtract 1-2 points if you don’t like some political elements in your movies
-Excellent set design and cinematography
-Excellent usage of dark subjects
-The painting scene
-Exposition dump for the dance scene
-Some underdeveloped side characters
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warnings: This film is unrated, but I would say that Strings is for older children and up. There are some deaths including Kahro committing suicide not even five minutes into the movie’s run time. Some of the subjects like genocide and imperialism may fly over a child’s head. Not to mention there are some implied sexual assault undertones against a female character that you don’t see. Zita even mentions that her people have been raped and slain, so there’s that to think about.