Puppetry is a rarity in film land. When Strings finally popped up in 2004 there seemed a window of opportunity for like-minded directors, but nobody followed in Anders Ronnow Klarlund's footsteps. And so Strings remains one of the most unique films to date. A technical tour de force and a hellish ride for the entire crew involved, but also a stunning fairy tale with a big, beating heart. A movie that everyone with a love for fantasy films should be able to appreciate.
Puppetry is a bit strange. It falls somewhere in between the realms of live-action cinema and animation. It's not a method that requires frame-by-frame processing to fake motion, but it's also far from a registration of our everyday world. It's the live-action equivalent of claymation and because of the technical challenges involved, it's probably not that strange that there are few puppetry films out there. Looking back Klarlund's undertaking was quite preposterous, but that's often how the best films get made.
Strings is not just a film with puppets though, it's a film that incorporates the entire puppetry physique and draws a lot of creativity from that. The strings that control the puppets play a crucial part in their lives, giving them life force and allowing them to move their limbs, but they also prohibit them from entering spaces with a roof. In that same vein, the city gates are little more than a raised log of wood. It's details like these that raise the film to a new level and they continue to pop up way deep into the second half of the film.
The story itself is pretty basic. When the king of Hebalon is killed by his brother, the king's son (Hal Tara) is sent out to take revenge on the Zeriths (Hebalon's life-long enemies), not aware that the betrayal came from inside Hebalon's own walls. When Hal Tara finally meets up with the Zeriths though, a different side of the story is revealed and Hal Tara pledges to right all wrongs. Fans of multiple layers will be happy to hear Klarlund hid an entire 9/11 analogy into the film's plot, but it can be safely ignored when you're just out to get a solid dose of good old fantasy storytelling.
Clearly, a lot of time was spent on building the sets. Everything looks incredibly detailed and the scale of the String's miniature world alone is absolutely impressive. The puppetry (as far as I can judge) is exceptional too, with surprisingly emotive characters and some pretty strong performances. Character designs are nice, and so is the actual camera work. The strange thing is that after a while you're actually forgetting you're not watching a regular live-action film. That is probably another thing that separates it from animation, which, due to its more abstract means of expression, usually flaunts its animation style.
Even though Strings is a Scandinavian film, it was made with an international audience in mind. I believe there are localized dubs available (meaning dubbed in Swedish/Danish), but the official dub is actually the English one. The voice cast isn't super, but it helps that it's comprised mostly of British actors, which lends the film at least some vocal class. With people like James McAvoy and Catherine McCormack on board they have some famous names to put on the poster, I'm just not sure if they were the best actors for the job. Then again, it never feels cheap or grating, so at least that's something.
Strings works best as a fantasy film. Klarlund went through a lot of trouble to construct a very elaborate world with its specific habits and mythology. This sense of continuous wonder is what makes String tick. The plot itself is quite basic and is little more than a catalyst for characters to move between different settings and plot points. The ending is pretty limited in scale, though I guess that's only to be expected when working with real-life puppets. Still, you never feel like you're missing out on something better and Klarlund makes sure there's always something to be in awe of.
Strings is a film that would probably appeal best to fans of animation, though I'd recommend it to everyone who likes to watch something outside the norm. The puppetry skills are outstanding, the setting and lore are elaborate and due to its economic runtime, the ideas and creativity put into it never fail to amaze. It's a terrific watch that makes you forget you're looking at human-controlled puppets. I hope Klarlund will return to filmmaking in the future because I'd sure like to see more of this.