Laika Studios have been increasingly gathering attention and acclaim with every release. But their Stop-Motion animated movies tend to lack a little something to tie everything together. I’ve always recommended their films, but acknowledged their residing flaws too. But maybe their latest creation, “Kubo and the Two Strings”, will change that pattern.
Taking on the style of a mythical tale with influences from Japanese and Chinese stories, our main character Kubo (Art Parkinson) has had a bit of a rough start to his life. Especially after his grandfather took his left eye out and is still hunting him down. His mother (Charlize Theron) managed to bring him to safety, but at the cost of her acquiring memory loss that at times leaves her totally dependant on Kubo to help her. Kubo makes a small living performing in the local village using a mystical Shamisen, that can bring pieces of paper to life. But it is not long before he is tracked down, and is plunged into a quest with the ultimate goal of taking on his grandfather, the Moon King. He will have companions to aid his journey, but he alone must master his powers and come to understand the past which tore his family apart.
To say this is a little darker and more serious than your typical animated feature is understating it, right from the beginning things go from spectacular and bad-ass, to a tragedy that honestly, had me fighting back the tears. It is one thing to see the usual stereotype of the parents just being “gone”, but to see Kubo struggling to maintain a connection with his mother is heart-breaking. I think this aspect alone is going to hit home hard with a lot of people, something they will identify with.
From there we get a sequence showing off Kubo’s powers manipulating the paper. And (ahem) it may sound dumb on paper, but seeing how creative and well-paced the animators have designed it, it works extremely well. Sure, you will have to just accept that this world has some form of magic or powers, but that’s something relatively easy to get past.
The same goes for where thing progress to, as we meet up with the main companion of Monkey. Suddenly having a charm come to life shakes up the world this film resides in a lot, but once we have both characters play off of each other and discuss the current situation, it didn’t feel so odd. And wow, is their friendship a complicated one. Again, the seriousness of the situation is brought right to the foreground for Kubo, this is no happy adventure and he is likely to get murdered. It isn’t even clear at first is Monkey is happy with looking after Kubo, she too is just thrown into the situation and has to adjust to it as things go along.
Later we are introduced to the cursed Samurai Warrior named Beetle (Matthew Mc Conaughey) who provides a lot of the comedic aspects to the script. If I was to be honest, his jokes are a scattered spray across the target range, sometimes hitting the mark and other times falling a bit flat. I can see why this was chosen since the movie needed some comic relief to balance the dark tones, but the jokes needed to be a bit more solid.
I’ll give a quick nod to the secondary villains too, because dammit I have to since they creeped the hell out of me. Voiced by Rooney Mara, their eerie voices while wearing those white masks gave them some really imposing presence. A very simple, but excellent visual design.
But I’ve gotten this far into the review and not even brought up the stop-motion, how is it? … It is a fucking masterpiece. You can forget Frozen, Wreck-it-Ralph, Zootopia, Kung Fu Panda 3, none of those can hold a candle to the visuals on display here. The mix of CG with the stop-motion is seamless by means of them complimenting each other all the time. The sharp-edged art style and wide colour palette also goes a long way to making the imagery really pop off of the big screen. But the killer moments come in the fight scenes during the second act on the boat, where a blend of beautiful editing and ferociously paced action had me on the edge of my seat in awe. There have been extremely few animated movies that can match what this sequence had on offer.
The elements utilising the paper are very effective too, it is a style that just works really well with the animation techniques being used. I cannot even begin to think how they pulled it off, gathering just a few second of footage each day, but getting the same results from relying entirely on CG would be almost impossible. You notice the frame-skips in the movement, but it all goes towards adding character and a unique feel to the scenes.
Lastly there are the tiny things that you’ll notice – such as the transition edits which use similarity to connect them together. Such a subtle effect, but a really nice artistic choice at the same time. The same goes for a lot of the lighting, using natural light sources among the stop-motion to generate an effect that digital work will have a hard time to match.
Without going into any spoilers, I think it is important to discuss the story. It is a lot more mature and thought-provoking than I was expecting it to be as I walked in. It is difficult to decide if the ending was indeed a happy one – Kubo goes through his arc, but in physical terms, it isn’t…. quite better than where he began. But spiritually, he certainly is. And I think that was the point of view the writers were aiming for. The same goes for the resolution with the primary villain. They don’t go anywhere near the typical ending for a bad guy, instead taking a totally different path that had my jaw on the floor. It was such a beautiful and rewarding way to wrap that plot aspect up, and an incredibly bold decision too.
There are however, moments that didn’t work so well. The main villain for example, has a pretty weak final battle that left me disappointed after everything else we had seen beforehand. His effects swallowed up too much of the screen too, both in size and lighting, they should have taken an alternative direction with that. As mentioned before there are some of the flat jokes, and the story being very, very linear. I have heard some call it thin, but I think the linearity is more the issue at hand than that. The checkpoints and destination are all pretty well marked out beforehand, and it doesn’t exactly sweep and flow through the storyline. As for the white-washing of the voice cast? Sure, I can see that being an issue for some. Some variety may have improved that aspect, even among the side characters. But that isn’t to say the actors and actresses they chose were any bit bad, so… tricky one to answer that.
The strange thing though, is that in most cases these issues would be enough for me to strike off on… maybe two points from the end rating. It is not perfect in every detail, and not everyone will universally love it, especially with it being a very unconventional angle to take with the narrative and more serious tones.
And, I don’t care one bit.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” may be one of the best animated films I have seen in the past 15 years, I am dead fucking serious. The main ones that pop to mind that rival it would be “WALL-E”, and the criminally-under watched “Rango”. Like those two, this has a visual aesthetic, design of narrative, and astonishing attention to detail, that is beyond and above the usual releases. This genuinely shook me emotionally, had me totally invested in the characters, provided some brilliant progression in their personalities, and action sequences that were absolutely astonishing.
It really saddens me to hear this doing so poorly in theatres at the moment, the television trailers try to sell it as something completely different and in a terrible light too. But you HAVE to see this on the big screen, even if you walk out less impressed than I was. Because there is so much on display that obliterates the competition that at least some of it will connect with you. Laika have taken a while to get their recipe right, but sweet Christmas, they nailed it this time!
Thanks for reading!