I don’t have a whole lot to say about Kubo and the Two Strings, except that it’s great. I’ve been a fan and proponent of the stop motion animation studio LAIKA since their first film Coraline (2009), and my admiration of them has only grown with each subsequent film (Paranorman and The Boxtrolls). The films always do well critically but seem to make just enough money to keep the studio going. Considering the time, energy, money and innovation that goes into every one of these films, it’s something that we need to actively support if we want them to continue.
Kubo and the Two Strings is set in ancient Japan, where Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones‘ Art Parkinson) the son of a fallen Samurai, lives a relatively peaceful life regaling locals with exciting tales acted out by magical origami players. We soon learn that his father’s life was taken by his evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his grandfather known as the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), whom he accidentally summons when he stays out past dark. Thus begins Kubo’s quest for his father’s armour and the full story of his past. He’s helped along the way by an overprotective monkey (Charlize Theron) and a disoriented, scrappy beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
The story is strong but its main function to get the characters from one amazing set piece to the next. Even though it involved more CGI than usual, LAIKA have really outdone themselves this time with stunning visuals and inspired action scenes. Once again, the handcrafted stop motion style makes better use of 3D technology than any live action film has in a long time. Things move at such a fast pace and provide such a feast for the eyes that it sometimes becomes difficult to orient yourself with exactly what’s happening in the narrative at any given point. As one of the story’s repeated proverbs states “If you must blink, do it now”. This is good advice for a story that requires one to follow along through its twists and turns. The intricate narrative is just one way that Kubo, like other LAIKA movies, is really more for older kids and adults than the little kiddies.
Hopefully Kubo can achieve the level of success that has eluded LAIKA since Coraline. It certainly exhibits qualities that may have prevented the last couple films from becoming big mainstream hits, primarily stories a little deeper than lost fish, demonstrating a decided quirkiness while also dealing with darker, more mature themes. It’s a calculated risk that they should be lauded for, even if it does somewhat narrow the film’s demographic. Perhaps their boldest decision is to consistently create original stories not based on previous properties, something that’s become increasingly rare to see, particularly in this season of summer blockbusters.
It’s also interesting to note that this is the directorial debut of LAIKA’s CEO Travis Knight and it’s written by another studio excec, Marc Haimes, who has producer credits on first two Transformers movies and Men In Black II. With their team of artisans and technicians, they’ve a created beautiful work of art that they might break even on, shattering the mould of what we think of when we hear about high ranking Hollywood studio executives making movies.
One thing LAIKA’s previous films did better was humour. It’s really tough to execute a good joke with so many moving parts going into every frame, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Fortunately enough of the humour lands to keep it from becoming annoying. The only other criticism I would wage is that the third act gets a little convoluted, particularly with regards to two very similar plot twists which change most of what came before (as every good plot twist should) but could easily be confusing for younger audiences. I’ll need to watch the film again to see if these plot twists hold up, which I look forward to doing at the next available opportunity.
As a fan of both animation studios, I’ve been guilty of making Pixar comparisons in the not so distant past, but I hope we all agree that any association is now tenuous and passé. The two entities are very different in their approach, styles and sensibilities. LAIKA has really come into its own and created a unique look and voice, we can stop comparing now.
Kubo and the Two Strings is easily the best animated film of the summer, perhaps the year. It certainly won’t put up Zootopia, Finding Dory or even Sausage Party box office numbers, but if there’s any justice Kubo and the Two Strings should finally get LAIKA that Oscar they so richly deserve.