Kubo and the Two Strings Review

Posted: September 3, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

kuboWritten by Daniel Simpson

Laika is an animation company I’ve observed with a sort of detached respect for the last few years. Their debut film, Coraline, is a great little film with some impressive animation, a dark edge, and a certain cinematic ambition. I skipped ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, mostly because I was bogged down with other stuff, but I still felt a certain admiration for their commitment to stop-motion animation and their refusal to produce the bland animated fare that typically bombards children in multiplexes. In short, these were movies that seemed to have a real identity and passion behind them. All of this is also true of their newest effort, Kubo and the Two Strings, but this time I actually made the effort to see the film in theaters. What’s different this time? Well, it certainly helps that the film is receiving the best reviews of Laika’s history, but more than anything I was really pulled in by the trailers, which featured some pretty stunning imagery and a certain sense of ambition that really drew me in.

Set in ancient Japan, the film follows the titular Kubo (voiced Art Parkinson), a young boy and a gifted storyteller who was saved from evil forces by his mother when he was still an infant. The attack left Kubo with only one eye and without a father, but since then he has lived in peace and happiness. However that all changes one night when Kubo stays out after dark and the forces which plagued him at birth return. Kubo finds himself hunted by a pair of witches (both voiced by Rooney Mara) for reasons he does not understand. Kubo however does find an ally in a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) brought to life by Kubo’s mother’s magic. Monkey is a fierce warrior, and the two are also joined by an amnesiac talking beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who is also a samurai. The three embark on a quest to find a mythical samurai armor set and sword, the only items which can help Kubo fend off the evil which seeks him.

The hallmarks which have defined Laika’s animation and visual style remain intact with Kubo and the Two Strings. This is another immaculately executed stop-motion film with keen attention to detail and a lot of awesome designs. Movements are fluid and hold weight, textures are detailed, and facial expressions are also natural and convey emotion quite well. There’s also some really awesome designs. The duel witches probably looked the coolest, cloaked in black with pointy top hats and a wickedly creepy grinning mask (and Mara’s voice work helps a lot too). I was also really found of the design of Beetle and the animation detail on Monkey’s fur is very impressive. However what is perhaps most shocking about the animation is the sheer scale of it. Perhaps it’s because I missed the last two Laika efforts, but this seems like a pretty substantial improvement in terms of size. There is a vastness to the world here that I’ve never really seen in a stop-motion film. This is pretty effectively conveyed in the opening scene, which sees Kubo’s mother fighting against tidal waves in a seemingly endless sea and there are other large scale environments throughout. A lot of these environments have been enhanced with CGI, but at the core of each scene is still stop-motion. This scale not only makes for a better world, but also makes for some exciting set-pieces, including the opening scene, a battle with a giant skeleton, and a fight between Monkey and one of the witches at sea. There are still some limitations mind you. For all the size in the environments, the cast is still relatively small. We only see a handful of character models and as such the lush world created doesn’t really feel all that populated. Still, given the intimacy of the story, that ultimately doesn’t matter as much as you might think.

Beneath the technical accomplishments of Kubo and the Two Strings is a genuinely involving story. The actual plot is somewhat derivative of other fantasy stories, but the execution still works really well here. The quest Kubo and his allies are in has a fun and adventurous tone while the perils they face feel appropriately grim and menacing. The film also has its share of comedy which is, for the most part, fairly well integrated into the story. There are some funny moments and while I maybe would have cut back on the humour a little bit, it’s never obtrusive or tonally jarring. Perhaps most importantly though is that the characters are strong. Kubo is a likable lead whom we get to see grow while Monkey and Beetle make for a fun supporting cast. I really liked this three characters and going on an adventure with them made for an enjoyable experience.

Kubo and the Two Strings is also a film with some thematic ambitions, and while I do admire this, it is in this area where the film most clearly stumbles. The film is really about the importance and power of storytelling, something made apparent from the opening narration and the fact that Kubo himself is a storyteller. That’s a fine theme and is certainly appropriate for an adventure movie like this, but the messages don’t seem to rise above much other than “stories are important”. Films like Hugo have explored similar ideas in a more personal way, while something like Inglorious Basterds have treaded on similar subject matter in a much more clever fashion. I’m also not entirely sure how the film’s villains tie in to this theme. There is some clear effort to link the two forces together, but it never comes off. There’s some lip-service paid to the idea of art helping one’s cope with the struggles of living, but we never really get any sense of misery or hardship from anyone. The only evil force we ever see is the actual villains of the film who seem an isolated exception rather than the norm. It certainly doesn’t help that all these ideas really come to end during the film’s final ten minutes which are most certainly its weakest moments. It is in this section where we finally meet the antagonist of the story, who is a bit bland (visually and in terms of character) and the ensuing battle between he and Kubo is the film’s least interesting set-piece. The resolution to the conflict is also clearly meant to be hopeful and inspiring, but I actually find it to be kind of creepy and left a lot of questions open.

In short Kubo and the Two Strings is a film that does stumble and lose its way a bit at the end and it also isn’t quite as intelligent or perceptive as it maybe wants to be. If nothing else, I don’t think the film matches Laika’s accomplishment with Coraline. However as an adventure film and a work of spectacle, Kubo and the Two Strings stands tall. This is a very fun film that creates some endearing characters on a fun adventure yarn and also delivers a handful of really exciting set-pieces. This is also a film with a real visual richness, one that pushes the boundaries of stop-motion animation with grand vision while still executing really well the little details. It certainly stands out among the average family movie, and for that matter, it also stands out among most of this year’s blockbusters. The summer of 2016 has not exactly been promising for those looking for mainstream thrills. I wouldn’t say Kubo has imagined as the last minute hero of the summer movie season, but it’s a quality film, one I had a lot of fun with.

B+

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