Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Our ongoing Sesame Street Week has us thinking about movies starring puppets.

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Strings (2004)

From a purely narrative perspective, Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s Strings is something of a bore—a glum Shakespearean fairy tale, featuring brooding royals and a tired message about how everyone is connected. Were one to modestly tweak the story, removing its fantasy elements, and then film it conventionally, on normal sets with flesh-and-blood actors, the results would fascinate only the most indiscriminate of feudal-intrigue fanatics. All of which is to say that the appeal of this singular effort lies not at all in the tale, but in the telling: The entire cast is made up of marionettes, who move—fluidly, often gracefully—through highly detailed sets, sometimes interacting with natural elements like fire, water, and snow.

It’s not an entirely unprecedented experiment. Two weeks before the movie screened at the London Film Festival, Trey Parker and Matt Stone premiered their blissfully vulgar blockbuster parody Team America: World Police. Like that superficially similar project, Strings gains much of its appeal through the recreation of basic film grammar, with Klarlund applying familiar shot selections, editing strategies, and aesthetic tropes to a miniature world and its inanimate occupants. (For cinephiles especially, there’s something weirdly enjoyable about seeing action-cinema clichés recreated on a smaller scale.) But the film differs from its concurrently released counterpart in the decision to embrace, rather than mask, the limitations of the art form: The characters are actual living puppets, kept alive by literal mortal coils that reach skyward and that can be fatally severed in battle. Children are not born, but carved of wood. When a prince loses a limb, he can simply acquire a new one from a slave—a practice that seriously warps the audience’s relationship with the bereaved hero.

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The marionette work—accomplished through the labor of more than 100 puppeteers, working under one of the medium’s masters, Bernd Ogrodnik—is incredibly sophisticated and nuanced. And Klarlund shoots his handmade subjects as he would normal actors, bathing them in light and shadow; he also uses the outlandish premise to his advantage, imagining an alternate world where every building has an open roof, allowing for dramatic, indoor torrential downpours. Accomplished British actors, including James McAvoy and Catherine McCormack, voice these feuding royals, though they never quite imbue them with rich personality—probably because their avatars, complexly crafted in most respects, lack moving mouths through which the dialogue might emanate. Klarlund might have been better off simply losing all dialogue, and perhaps most of the story, too. What draws viewers to his film is the spectacle of its craftsmanship, the sight of master artists performing their trade in a new context. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a puppet show.

Availability: Strings is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library.

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