Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings
(Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril )
In the last 7 years, I was surprised to find my love for animation studios within the United States, taking a crazy detour.
Though I had been a huge fan of PIXAR Animation Studios during the early 2000’s, I soon became enamored by a smaller studio located in Oregon, by the name of Laika.
Founded in 2005 by Travis Knight (son of Nike CEO Phil Knight), the studio would soon attempt the impossible, when they decided to become a production house, specializing in stop-motion animated features.
2009 saw the release of the film Coraline, which became one of my favorite films of that year (sorry people, Up just didn’t feel as satisfyingly ‘whole’ as Coraline to me).
Since then, we’ve seen that Laika is a studio that isn’t afraid to scare people, or even delve into some of the darker sides of human nature. This was evident in their last feature films, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls.
Though the studio’s productions have not made the kinds of money that other big-name animation studios have, their methods of making a film based on quality work mixed with unique stories, has often made me eager to keep coming back for more.
When it was announced that Mr Knight (who had been a lead animator on previous Laika productions) was actually going to direct Kubo and the Two Strings, I was immediately on board (plus, how many times do you hear of a company’s CEO also directing a film for his company!?).
The film centers around a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), who lives high above a small seaside village, with his mother.
One day, apparitions from his family’s past appear, causing Kubo to flee far away. It is then that he finds he must go on a quest to find an ancient suit of armor, that can possibly protect him from those that are pursuing him.
Accompanying him on his journey, are a talking monkey (Charlize Theron), and a man/bug/warrior named Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
In a talk with Travis Knight following a screening of Kubo I attended, he told interviewer Steve Prokopy (aka “Capone” from Aintitcoolnews), that he hoped that the studio could make a stop-motion feature in each genre, and it looks like Kubo has filled the slot for a Samurai film.
Much of the film takes its visual cues from Japan, with a number of settings and scenes, stylized around classic Japanese art prints, and sword-and-sandal pictures. Travis Knight also adds in some intimidating monsters to the quest, with a few seeming to be inspired by the creations of Ray Harryhausen.
For much of the film, Kubo mainly plays his three-stringed shamisen, which is soon shown to help unleash special powers he has. His first use of it to make origami figures come to life, is one of the most fun scenes I’ve seen all summer (almost making me wish that origami figures could spring to life so easily). Of course, the young man soon finds out that his powers can be utilized in other ways, too.
Laika films often have very memorable supporting characters, and Monkey and Beetle end up being two that surprised me greatly. Some claimed it was odd hearing Theron’s voice coming from the mouth of a Monkey, but the tone and seriousness that she brings to her character, works perfectly in tandem with this creature that has chosen to become Kubo’s guardian. She’s probably one of the most serious sidekicks I’ve seen in an animated feature so far this year.
Beetle on the other hand, is a little more aloof, and a bit scatterbrained. Though just how this person came to become a man/bug hybrid, I still had questions about after the film was over. Even so, he definitely has the kind of skills one would want on an epic quest.
Just as impressive, was the back-and-forth bantering regarding the small group. I don’t know who is responsible, but they managed to make these moments work in regards to having the right amount of humor, and character development. While other animated films would have had someone overstay their welcome with some talking, it surprisingly never goes that far.
Where Kubo might lose some points with the audience, is in regards to its story. While it is not as overly-layered as The Boxtrolls, its overall tone and message never seems to get as strong as Coraline, or Paranorman. It’s a very simple story, with not a lot of layering, which might surely make it a little easier for most to follow. I did want a few extra twists and turns here or there (given it was an epic journey), though one revelation I enjoyed, might be a bit hard for most in the audience to fathom.
The screening I attended was in 3D, and though I rarely ever champion the use of it, the 3D in Laika’s films often works well (I still have fond memories of seeing Coraline in 3D!). Also a plus, was that unlike the dark 3D scenes I saw recently in Pete’s Dragon (that seemed to render the imagery into a black ‘mush’), the dark scenes within Kubo actually are lit with enough light, that the dimensional imagery still registers!
Also like Pete’s Dragon, Kubo is a family film that doesn’t fall down the rabbit hole of ‘easy pandering’ like we’ve seen in many Hollywood productions. You’ll have quiet moments, and those where the audience is actually allowed to catch its breath. This is a film where not everyone watching is a winner, and will surely be a treat for those who crave the not-so-pedestrian in their entertainment.
Even though it is not as strong in the storytelling as the first of the studio’s films, I still strongly recommend seeing Kubo and the Two Strings. So much of what is shown on the screen, feels like it was meant to be seen ‘big.’ The fights, the artistic details, the communal experience of both children and adults getting something out of a rarely-seen art form…they all combine into something that I do hope many will partake in upon its release.
Final Grade: B+ (“Kubo and the Two Strings” shows that Laika can still release amazing work, and show the beauty and wonder that stop-motion can achieve, massaged by subtle CGI. While Kubo himself is not as a strong of a lead character, he is buoyed on by a supporting ensemble cast, that manages to be entertaining, and thought-provoking. The story can get a little simplified at times in regards to Kubo’s quest, and a few revelations might not be so easy for the average audience member to wrap their brains around.)