Though it is certainly the most impressive stop-motion animation achievement ever, Laika Entertainment’s latest release fails to reach its full potential because of piecemeal storytelling and a hazy emotional core.
I love animated films. They offer a boundless potential to bring to life foreign worlds that are immediately recognizable and relatable once on screen. They permit filmmakers to showcase emotionally turbulent childhoods without the challenge of navigating a human child’s psychology to procure a believable performance. They attract otherwise unimaginable casts thanks to their ease on the actors’ schedules. They can be works of staggering visual wonder.
The above are a few of the many reasons why the poster for Kubo and the Two Strings was enough to make me groundlessly excited for this film. It appeared that Studio Ghibli greatly influenced this effort from Laika Entertainment, based on the evident Japanese culture. The stop-motion animators drew heavily from the Pixar well for their previous films (Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls)––I am not opposed to this in the slightest, but do believe Ghibli produces better work more consistently.
The poster also made me aware of the film’s voice cast, which includes some of my favorite working performers, such as Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey––the white washing here is evident, but the assembly of that group of actors is a tour de force in itself. If that cast were in a live-action film, it would be the early favorite to win Best Picture and the Palme d’Or.
And to top it all off, the protagonist wears an eye patch without any indication why! Tantalizing!
I believe I have made the point that my enthusiasm was uncontrollable, and perhaps premature, so I’ll move on to a review that seeps with disappointment. Don’t mistake me, though: Kubo‘s a good movie. But at the end of the day, it is just Laika taking a step sideways rather than a step forward. Allow me to explain.
(hit the JUMP to get that explanation I promised)
For a movie so clearly in love with storytelling, Kubo doesn’t do a great job telling its own. Despite the titular character’s clear objective––obtain a sword, a piece of armor, and a helmet––it feels as if screenwriters Marc Haimes and Chris Butler piecemeal together Shannon Tindle’s story, rather than opting to truly guide their protagonist on a driven mission. Part of the disappointment in this film is that you do not realize this is a problem until 20 minutes in, because up until then the film relies on its world building, one of Laika’s definitive strengths.
“If you must blink, do it now,” says Kubo (Game of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) over black, before he thrusts us head first into action: Kubo’s mother rides a boat amongst enormous waves, and maroons ashore with her recently born son, who has just had his eye stolen by his grandfather. Years later, Kubo is a street performer who channels his magic through a samisen (a Japanese instrument akin to a guitar) to tell samurai tales of his father, Hanzo––for what it’s worth, this sequence is probably the most delightful stop-motion animation ever created. But Kubo’s mother is losing her magic and falling weak; she can only converse with her son for the few hours after the sunset before growing tired. She tells him to never take off his father’s cloak, who died saving their lives, and to never expose himself to moonlight, or else his grandfather will find him and take his other eye.
The above is the work of geniuses. What follows is not.
The first indication of storytelling trouble occurs as act one comes to a close. Although Kubo has known his entire life that he must return home before sundown, he––and there really is no other way I can think to put this––just kind of happens to stay in a graveyard too long, in an attempt to speak with his father’s spirit and receive advice. It is hard not to imagine that his father would tell him to return to his mother before the day ends. The moments unearths memories of Laika’s sophomoric effort, Paranorman, in which the hero, Norman, needs to recite from a book atop a witch’s grave before sunset, but does not manage to do so in a manner that feels forced for the sake of the story’s progression. Nonetheless, with the sacrificial help of his mother, Kubo escapes his aunts, who have been sent by his grandfather for his eye. He embarks on a quest, on which he jubilantly bumbles from one set piece to the next with an anthropomorphized monkey (Theron) and curse-ridden beetle-samurai (McConaughey), in order to acquire an unbreakable sword, some impenetrable armor, and a helmet––identified by a similar superlative––but not much in the way of mental revelation.
In this world, climates change drastically in a matter of steps, and characters appear out of the blue, all while an animate origami fold of Hanzo ceaselessly points our heroes in the right direction, ruining the opportunity for a dramatic wrong turn or disagreements regarding which way to go next. The story trudges forward without much emotional or physical divergence, other than the aunts’ dogged pursuit of Kubo in the nighttime and the difficulty they face in stealing each magical item from the beasts that guard them. It is as if Dorothy and friends spent the entire film on the Yellow Brick Road; thankfully, they reached The Emerald City at the midpoint of that film, rather than its climax.
This lack of focus weakens the film’s ending, as it struggles to provide a message that is not only clear, but also definable at all. It does not feel like a film about family, it does not feel like a film about loss, and it certainly is not a film about music or origami. If anything, then, Kubo is a superhero origin story, but it does such an inadequate job exploring the growth of Kubo’s powers that I hesitate to call it that as well. There are elements of all of the above throughout, and they certainly delight when they stand alone; but the comprehensive result is somewhat of a head scratcher without any indication a second viewing will provide much in the way of allegorical clarity.
Blessedly, the characters are more than likable enough to follow throughout the 101-minute runtime, even if their internal motivations prove troublingly non-specific as well. The emotional void Kubo needs to fill on this quest is perplexing. He does not long for closure with his deceased father throughout, and is not wrought with grief after separating from his mother. Beetle, the enormous and muscular mutant Kubo encounters, is similarly problematic. The sense is that Beetle searches for a purpose in life, but this is not explored enough to provide a satisfying emotional beat as the film draws to a close. This is perhaps due to convenient twists that clarify the questionable character dynamics that precede them; the answers provided are fine, but not rewarding. Finally, Beetle forces one to ask a lot of questions and receive few answers regarding his back story, such as, “What the hell has Beetle been doing since he was cursed?” His recollections of the time before the curse do not exist, but thankfully Laika stops short of turning him into Dory (Finding Dory), by not straddling him with short term memory loss and then providing him with memories at opportune moments.
It is worth mentioning that Monkey proves a refreshingly simple and understandable character; her motivation is to protect Kubo at all costs. If there are complaints to be had with Monkey, though, the first that comes to mind is the story’s reliance on the twists to deliver the semblance of a character arc for Monkey, as well as Beetle. The film also saddles Monkey with the unfortunate burden of playing the “straight monkey” in juxtaposition to the wide-eyed Kubo and Beetle, the optimistic goofball. First time director Travis Knight––Laika’s executive producer––relegates Monkey to inorganic and childish humor, such as when Kubo sends a stream of magic origami birds to poke her in the behind. Monkey follows this with a single line that’s sure to make children laugh, but adults cringe: “Do not mess with the monkey.” The film seems to find her much funnier than any audience member probably will, but this is a minor, wholly forgivable sin.
It is worth mentioning that, though verging on the rudimentary, the film’s antagonists––the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his two daughters (Rooney Mara), who are Kubo’s grandfather and aunts––provide some of the most satisfying stop-motion visuals ever seen. The characterization of Kubo’s aunts is particularly affecting, most notably in an action sequence in which one of aunt’s masks breaks, revealing a sneering mouth underneath that offers a provocative glimpse of the hatred that resides within her. The only issue to be had with the aunts is in their story––prior to the aforementioned scene, they are always depicted in tandem, but in an instance of unforgivable convenience, Monkey wards off a single aunt, leaving the audience to question what happened to the other. She shows up again for a later fight scene, but it rather feels as if there is a deleted scene that should be reinstalled to explain why the sisters went separate ways.
The bottom line is that the same issues that plagued Laika’s previous releases––storytelling, plotting, and ultimate message delivery––keep Kubo and the Two Strings from reaching its full potential. Nonetheless, the animation studio continues to produce works of visual and conceptual genius, and Kubo is its most impressive to date.