I have little doubt in my mind that over the next few years Kubo and the Two Strings will be the film that all stop-motion animation is measured against. Proudly unbeholden to traditional methods, Laika (the studio behind Coraline and Boxtrolls) have combined conventional stop-motion, animatronics, CG and some pioneering 3D printing techniques to create one of the most beautiful and visually imaginative animated films in recent memory. Laika’s confident design and a pioneering spirit give Kubo and the Two strings an unforgettable personality. Some pacing issues and an at times surprisingly sparse world can leave the story overshadowed by the amazing visuals, but the endearing characters and creative flourishes throughout the adventure ensure there is still plenty of fun to be had among the artistry.
While Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t boast a story I’d describe as being full of surprises, a lot of the fun the script has is in the joy of discovery, so I’m going to go a little light on plot details for this one. Long story short, Kubo (Art Parkinson), the one-eyed grandson of a powerful and vengeful spirit called the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), is on a quest to recover the legendary armor and sword of his late heroic father in order to defeat his grandfather for good. Joining him on the adventure is the aptly named Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), the first a talking monkey summoned to life by Kubo’s mother in her last moments to protect him, and the second a warrior trained by Kubo’s father who has been cursed to look like a giant bug. Also, Kubo can magically bring Origami figures to life by playing music. Got it? Good.
As you’ve probably guessed, Kubo’s story is alive with magic and whimsy. Debut director Travis Knight delivers a good old-fashioned family-adventure film with a wondrous Ancient Japanese aesthetic, and it’s impossible not to be absorbed into the world he’s crafted. Frightening spirits and colossal monsters (one of which earns Laika the record of the largest stop-motion puppet ever created) do battle with our heroes, each a spell-binding creation in their own right as well as fodder for fluid action you’d have never believed possible in a stop-motion film. It also doesn’t hurt that the artists behind the character designs absolutely knock it out the park. If there’s been cleaner and more detailed figures in a stop-motion animation, I’ve certainly never seen them.
Kubo and the Two Strings’ visuals are a testament to the studio’s willingness to experiment and to the “lo-fi and high tech” philosophy behind the design, trying all sorts of effects and fine-tuning each component in isolation. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking the movie was completely computer generated given their mind-boggling creations, but the tactile feel the physical puppets give is unmistakable and give Kubo a very subtle, but undeniable point of difference to the dime-a-dozen animated movies out in the market. To play it safe though, the credits do treat you to a glimpse of one of the most prized designs in the studio, earning more than one “oh my god, they actually made that” from the younger viewers in my audience.
But despite all its wonderful creations and vibrant sets, when Kubo and the Two Strings takes a breath from the action, the quiet tends to last a little too long and the world starts to feel a little vacant. Perhaps it’s unsurprising given the care and detail that went into every aspect of the design, but as the film goes on you start to feel like the only things that exist in this universe are what is directly interacting with Kubo and his comrades. It’s maybe a little nit-picky given everything the studio put into the movie, but it happens enough to show they saw the edge of their canvas as a mercy and not a restriction.
The same is sadly a little true of the script, both in the dialogue and the story’s structure. The characters all feel authentic and their dialogue is believable and littered with comedic beats, but the exchanges stretch a hair too far and the beats hang awkwardly in the air, begging for the next line and ultimately stopping the conversation from flowing naturally. There are bound to be dull moments in any movie, especially in the breaks between set-pieces of a big adventure movie, but these conversational quibbles make the film’s slower scenes feel like a chore instead of a welcome chance to watch the trio interact.
The ending also felt a little too fluffy for my tastes. Perhaps I’m just spoiled on the all the Pixar and Ghibli that make up my current animation diet, but it felt a little too clean and tidy to have the emotional resonance I was hoping it would bring to the film. Especially given all the rich family material they had to work with. As a side note though, props to the writers for actually giving some motivation to the villain that you could get behind instead of just making him evil for evil’s sake.
The voice cast turn in decent performances in their respective roles, but none really deliver anything special beyond what is sadly becoming the standard for voice-acting in animated features. Theron gives the sense of a strong, maternal figure with Monkey, but also feels uncharacteristically cold and distant when she isn’t given direct emotion. Fiennes similarly doesn’t quite bring the charisma you would hope from one of the most endearing actors around. McConaughey fairs a little better in his first animated role through virtue of having such a recognizable voice and getting a few more comedic beats to play with than his fellow cast. Of the whole cast though, it’s really only Parkinson who delivers the enthusiasm you need from a voice-actor to get you excited about their character. It’s a shame that it will be all his of co-stars likely being mentioned in association to the film, as he’s really the only actor that doesn’t give you the sense he’s in it for a quick buck.
Kubo and the Two Strings has a few blemishes that keep it from being an absolute must-see, but what makes it special vastly outshines what makes it derivative. Likely the most inventive and visually arresting animated film of the year, Kubo and the Two Strings gives families a distinct and exciting cinematic adventure, even if it does fall into some familiar traps along the way.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10