Here’s what I didn’t love about Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika’s new film about a young Japanese boy with magical powers and evil enemies: The primary plot twists are predictable, at least to an adult viewer. The broad comedy in the middle of the story, when it feels like the filmmakers are trying to give the kids in the audience something to laugh about, is not always successful. The climactic battle is suitably rousing and emotionally stirring, yet not quite as strong as what came before. And at the risk of coming off as a social justice warrior it does feel a bit odd hearing so many clearly non-Asian voices (Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro) coming out of the mouths of so many Asian, specifically Japanese, characters, even with George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa around in the background voicing nameless villagers.
Here’s what I loved about Kubo and the Two Strings: Everything else.
No, seriously, everything else about this movie is sheer perfection, from the hero’s journey story to the stunning animation to the warm and lively vocal performances to the gorgeous music to the ingenious direction and impeccable editing. You might have seen headlines from other reviewers touting this as Laika’s masterpiece, and I cannot disagree with that argument.
Laika, of course, is the Oregon-based production house which specializes in stop-motion animation. They produce their movies in-house for a modest budget, and distribute them through Universal’s Focus Features, kicking off this partnership with 2009’s Coraline. Lately, they’ve been on a schedule of releasing one new movie every two years: 2012’s ParaNorman, 2014’s The Boxtrolls and now 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings. Though never box office smashes, their films are typically adored by cineasts, animation purists and more adventurous families who don’t mind some melancholia and even some legitimate scares in the films they watch together.
Frankly, Laika’s films are exactly the kinds of things someone like me and other bloggers and YouTubers are pretty much duty-bound to at least admire. That was certainly the case for The Boxtrolls, a moderately enjoyable children’s book adaptation bogged down by a slightly offputting design aesthetic. However, even as the film slightly underwhelmed, at least compared to Laika’s prior efforts, it was impossible not to admire the expert craftsmanship on display.
And if that was all Kubo and the Two Strings had going for it, if this was 101 minutes of jaw-dropping visuals married to a kind of blah story that would still be enough to make it worth watching because, well, just look at some of these amazing shots:
And that’s barely the tip of the iceberg of breathtaking imagery in this film, always enhanced by the ever-present knowledge that they accomplished most of this using miniature puppets and sets with minimal augmentation from computer animation.
But Kubo actually has something to say as opposed to just beautifully composed shots to show. As the director Travis Knight, who is also Laika’s President and CEO, has described it, Kubo is “a monumental Kurosawan myth in miniature,” an original story about a young boy’s quest to protect himself from a vengeful deity and learn more about his family’s magical history. Along the way, it morphs into an insightful rumination on loss and moving ode to the power of storytelling, which in lesser hands could come off as an all too familiar rehash of animated movie tropes. However, in Knight’s first-time-director hands it has a surprising confidence, refusing to ever undercut its sentiment with post-modern irony or speak down to its audience, trusting that the kid who tells his mother “This is boring!” after the first 5 minutes will engage with the story and openly ask “What happened? Is everyone okay?” after one of the climactic battles.
It’s quite a personal story, really. Kubo uses his powers, which he initially controls through his shamisen, to turn sheets of paper into origami characters acting out the samurai epic he recounts for the gathered city folk. Even though the script is credited to Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, it’s not hard to see Knight, the grandson of a newspaper publisher and son of the co-founder of Nike, in Kubo here, with the origami standing in for the very stop-motion dolls Knight has built his career on. Such parallels are why Knight decided he needed to be the director, as he told The Frame:
We shepherd these projects for a long periods of time and we take those things on that we love and we’re very discriminating. As we sort of developed this project and started to see those parallels between my life and this film, it really became something that I felt like I could bring a perspective to that would be special and would do justice to the story.
When I was growing up, I was an obsessive fan of big fantasy epics, and that was a gift from my mother. In fact, when she was pregnant with me and when she was recovering in the hospital after I was born, she was reading Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” So in a very real way, Tolkien and fantasy had been a part of my life since the moment I took my first breath. Because of all of those things and more, it was something that I decided that I was going to take on.
And both from a technical and storytelling standpoint Kubo feels like the movie Knight could have only made at this point in his life after figuring out what to do and what not to while overseeing Laika’s earlier films and likely grappling with his own legacy as a father to three children. As such, Kubo is the type of films all audiences can enjoy. You’ll be weeping while Kubo’s shamisen gently weeps. However, younger audiences might not truly appreciate this until they look back on it years from now with the wisdom that the old can’t give away.
RottenTomatoes: 96% – “Kubo and the Two Strings matches its incredible animation with an absorbing — and bravely melancholy — story that has something to offer audiences of all ages.”