Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) – Movie Review
Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by: Travis Knight
Written by: Marc Haimes & Chris Butler
Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara & Ralph Fiennes
Music: Dario Marianelli
Release Date: September 9th 2016
Not since Aardman Animations has a company managed to dominate or corner stop-motion animation like LAIKA Animation. Releasing 4 films in seven years, LAIKA have been responsible for some of the most memorable and endearing animated films in recent memory such as ‘Coraline‘, ‘Paranorman‘ and ‘The BoxTrolls‘. While the films might not have the box-office takings of Pixar, Disney, Illumination or other companies, their films have managed to be cost and time effective despite their stop-motion style thanks to modern VFX technology combined with efficient 3-D printing.
But something feels different with their latest endeavour; ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘. While their previous films have come across as humble affairs with low-key casts, this comes across as LAIKA’s first attempt at an outright blockbuster epic with a fantasy-action film with big-name stars attached to voice the ensemble cast. While LAIKA’s CEO Travis Knight has worked as an animator on all of their previous films, he’s now in the director’s chair for the first time but is this too much ambition for a first-time director to handle or is ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ LAIKA’s proudest achievement yet?
Long ago in Japan, a young boy named Kubo (Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu manage to escape from Kubo’s grandfather and Saraitu’s evil sisters (Mara) who are hunting him down in order to steal his last remaining eye. Hiding in secret, Kubo starts to develop his power of manipulating origami with his Shamisen to entertain the locals as well as looking after his sick mother. But when Saraitu’s Sisters find them both, Kubo escapes alone and is tasked with tracking down a magical set of armour to defend himself. On his journey, he’s accompanied by Monkey (Theron) and Beetle (McConaughey) to find the armour pieces and defeat his Grandfather, the Moon King (Fiennes) and avenge his family and his late mother and father.
In terms of style and tone, LAIKA Animations’ previous efforts felt more at home in Tim Burton’s wheelhouse. That’s not a criticism and it’s clearly something LAIKA intended with their prior works, with ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ director Henry Selick helming ‘Coraline‘, ‘Corpse Bride‘ storyboarder Chris Butler co-directing ‘ParaNorman‘ and ‘James and the Giant Peach‘ animator Anthony Stacchi co-directing ‘The Boxtrolls‘. But ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ couldn’t feel more far removed from those sensibilities as the movie takes inspiration from Eastern mythology including samurai warriors, tales of the afterlife, honour-bound culture and more. In fact, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ feels like an epic tale that Kubo himself would tell at one of his live-origami shows and not just because of the deliberately jagged character designs and the environments they inhabit (even the mountain Kubo and his mother live inside looks like something from a pop-up book and that can’t have been accidental).
Thematically, the closest comparison I can think of to ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ is 2014’s ‘The Book of Life‘; a 3-D animated movie directed by Jorge Gutierrez. In tone, the two films are very different as ‘The Book of Life‘ is more focused on humour and elaborate visual gags, but when it comes to the subject matter both films deal with legacy and the idea of a loved one’s spirit still surviving as long as you remember them and hold them in your heart. To elaborate more on how ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ follows through on these concepts would be a huge spoiler, but the themes of loss and self-rehabilitation are certainly profound, particularly through our main character Kubo who loses both of his parents but it’s their legacy and the impact they leave on him that makes him stronger.
The idea of memory is a powerful motif, especially with how it pertain’s to Kubo’s character growth. Because while he is a strong child, with a strong spirit and intelligence to match with great potential as a warrior, it’s very rare that he’s able to get by on those skills alone. It’s through the legacy left behind by his mother and father that allows him to grow stronger, for example with his mother who starts off a sick woman who spends most of her time in a trance. But in order to protect Kubo on his quest she brings to life a wooden monkey charm in order to defend him; “Mr. Monkey”, a name which Kubo instantly regrets after discovering the actual gender of his new guardian.
We also have Beetle, an amnesiac, former samurai warrior and apprentice to Kubo’s father who has been cursed with the features of a Beatle. Another example of someone who draws strength from the only memories he seems to have left, as well as the film’s main source of comic-relief which brings me nicely on to the film’s performances and let’s start with McConaughey as Beetle. McConaughey is a naturally funny and unique presense in his first animated film but it’s not very often he’s THE comic-relief presense in a movie and while almost all the characters get moments of wit and a laugh or two, McConaughey’s delivery is consistently entertaining. It’s not a screaming or loud style of comedy, it’s just great vocal conviction to make Beetle a rather dim but kind-hearted warrior.
Charlize Theron is a fierce presense as Monkey, even if it’s quite clear that she’s playing a very similar character to Furiosa in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road‘. She’s a character pulling double-duty as a powerful warrior whilst also a maternal figure. These comparisons aren’t necessarily a bad thing because it’s a character that she absolutely nails. Rooney Mara is spooky as hell as Kubo’s evil Aunts (not to mention rocking an epic wardrobe that will become a cosplay staple in a few year’s time), Brend Vaccaro embues a lot of energy into a small but lovely role as a grandmother-figure to Kubo in his village and Ralph Fiennes may be going massively over-the-top as Kubo’s evil grandfather but it’s a fun, villainous turn. Although the villain’s fate feels like a retread of what LAIKA did with ‘Paranorman‘, it’s still an effective resolution. But the real star here is Art Parkinson leading the charge as Kubo. Parkinson displays almost every emotion possible in this role, with a legitimate presense but he’s also just a kid as well. He’s a kid who has had to grow up incredibly quickly, but there are still flashes and moments of his youth and immaturity without being wholly unbearable like many child characters often are on screen.
It’s actually that description of Kubo that sums up ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ quite nicely. There are moments of fun, wonder and awe throughout and almost every moment of soul-crushing sadness is balanced with an equally optimistic or beautiful one, but they’re not fighting for space or screen-time. It’s a level of maturity not often seen in family-friendly animated fare where even a Pixar movie like ‘Finding Dory‘ (which I really enjoyed, don’t get me wrong) followed its big emotional scene with a massive, tonally-off-putting car chase. This movie follows big reveals and devastating loses with scenes of quiet. With atmosphere. It allows the emotions to truly sink in before moving onto the next epic battle or the next exquisitely detailed locale.
Speaking of which, the entire package looks gorgeous. LAIKA’s animation talent is on full display with movement so fluid and faces so expressive, yet packed with detail that you’d be forgiven for thinking that most of it was CG animation. A stunningly realised opening sequence showing Kubo’s mother taking down a tidal wave with her magic is only the beginning as we see stunning backdrops, thrilling sword-fights and epic battles against some of the largest creatures ever moved frame-by-frame in stop-motion. In fact, the Skeleton Demon that Kubo, Monkey and Beetle fight relatively early on in the film is the largest stop-motion puppet ever built, standing at 16-feet tall. A montage showing it being partially created during the end-credits is sure to be a pivotal moment in the minds of many aspiring, young animators seeing this movie for the first time.
The lighting, mood, atmosphere, character designs, the movie is just firing on all cylinders. This is also the longest ever stop-motion animated film at 102 minutes long, but despite its epic scope it has the same production budget as all of LAIKA’s previous films; $60M, which is insane. ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ is a brilliant marriage of hand-crafted characters and environments whilst also using modern technology like green-screen to make the frame more dynamic and enhance the practical effects. Dario Marianelli beautifully handles the score, a fight scene taking place on a disintegrating ship is a 2016 action-highlight (a scene that took 19 months to animate) and Regina Spektor’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a wonderful way to close a wonderful movie.
‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ is not only the best animated film I’ve seen all year but LAIKA animation have hand-crafted a masterpiece frame-by-frame. With a compelling story, complex but relatable themes, memorable characters, stellar production design and state-of-the-art animation, LAIKA have adapted the tales of Eastern mythology into a film that is the complete package. ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ is a brave and mature tale of loss, courage and legacy but it’s one that the whole family can enjoy with possibly older audiences being just as enthralled at the movie’s lore as the children who engage with it.
I give ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘ 5 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 30th Nov 16