Stop motion animation giant Laika consistently produces alluring and powerful films. Kubo and the Two Strings, directed by Laika CEO Travis Knight, continues this tradition. Kubo may be the best-looking stop-motion film ever produced, complete with fantastical creatures, awe-inspiring landscapes, and even action sequences that shame actual action movies. In addition, unlike some of the animated films this summer, Kubo and the Two Strings packs significant thematic punch, deftly handing complex issues and ideas. There are serious issues with the film, mostly revolving around the uneven pacing and lackluster vocal performances (which may actually be poor dialogue writing – it is hard to say). In the grand scope, the result is an absolute treasure, but one in which you have to slog through some needlessly slow and awkward moments. Fortunately, it is just so damn pretty and cool that, for some people, that won’t matter too much.
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of a young boy and his mother. They both possess a peculiar form of magic, which Kubo accesses through his shamisen, a three-stringed guitar-like instrument. Kubo mostly uses his powers to spin epic tales by manipulating origami characters – a wonderful reflection of the film’s own animation style. Kubo’s mother suffers from some unrevealed ailment which affects her mental capacities, but on one thing she is very clear: Kubo cannot be outside at night, or The Moon King and his daughters will find Kubo and steal his lone remaining eye. When Kubo inevitably disobeys her, she sends Kubo on a quest for a magical set of armor which will protect him from the assailants.
On this quest Kubo runs into both allies and enemies, and one of the major strengths of the film is its creative character design. Kubo and his mother are the generic human characters, but even they are expressive and interesting. Kubo meets a talking monkey and a samurai cursed to live as a beetle, and they are both great-looking characters. The Moon King is interesting enough, but the real show-stopping antagonists are his daughters. They are unnerving, dark, and downright scary, much of which derives from a couple of costume design choices. Plus, a couple of other Level Bosses absolutely amaze when they are on screen, in particular a Gashadokuro (giant skeleton) which was brought to life through a 16-foot paper puppet, the largest stop-motion puppet ever crafted. Overall, the characters and their designs are spectacular. Unfortunately, the voice-acting is not quite up to par.
Without a doubt, the best voice-acting in the film comes from Kubo (Art Parkinson, who played Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones). And with all due respect to Parkinson, this is not a good sign. Charlize Theron (Monkey) and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle) both deliver wooden lines that fall quite hollow, and it is bizarre that this aspect of the film is so botched. This is McConaughey’s first stint as a voice actor, and Theron’s second (she also narrated Astro Boy), so perhaps some of this can be chalked up to inexperience. There is also the possibility that the dialogue was just poorly written, because even more-talented voice actors have some difficulty delivering the lines. At least in the cases of Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Ralph Fiennes it feels more bearable, but they also have less to do. I am not sure where to place the majority of the blame for this misstep, but it is quite egregious, even to the point of affecting the overall pacing of the film, as line after line of uninspired dialogue draws out scenes well beyond an appropriate length.
Fortunately, the lackluster performances and dialogue cannot significantly detract from the gorgeous stop-motion animation. Kubo and the Two Strings is probably the prettiest animated film I have seen in years. It definitely rivals last year’s Inside Out, and is may just be the most engrossing stop-motion animation ever. The settings and landscapes, characters, and even the action sequences are all look perfect, and the style itself allows the creators to dream up some pretty amazing moments / bad guys. Laika is obviously known for this style, and the studio may have perfected it with this film. The prowess of these animators isn’t even relegated to crucial sequences in the film; there are wonderful moments where our characters are simply walking through a forest, or wandering through a cave and you have to stop to realize that everything you are seeing on screen was created in real life. The animation of Kubo and the Two Strings is an unparalleled achievement, and would be worth experiencing regardless of the success or failure of the other elements of the film.
And, although some of the characters and writing fall flat, the actual story and the related thematic material registers as incredibly thrilling. There are myriad discussions on the power of family and the strength we can derive from the memories of those we have lost, all of which is deftly earned through various plot elements. There is also a heavy emphasis on the power of storytelling, not only to inspire and delight others, but as a means for crafting one’s own history, and determining the trajectory of one’s own life. The climactic moment of the film brings all of these elements together through a wonderful plot element (which, even though it was heavily telegraphed, still lands well). At the end of the film, we’re left with a completely satisfying plot-theme: a bittersweet mixture of triumph and loss that respects the intelligence of the audience.
Simply put, no animated film of this year is as pretty or packed full of thematic weight as Kubo and the Two Strings. But, there are plenty that capitalize more on the characters and stories that they have to work with. In that sense, Kubo looks great and has a pleasing amount to say, but it feels as though the film botches the landing just a bit. Kubo is unquestionably a visual triumph for Laika, and one appreciates the courage it expresses by broaching such wonderful thematic material while also succeeding in some truly imaginative world-building, cool creatures, and characters. But with a little more care towards the writing, voice-acting, and pacing, it could have been an absolute masterpiece. As it stands, it is more of a visual feast through a fantastic world where particular legs of the journey just fall too short. Kubo should be commended for its successes (and they are many), but the film’s missteps keep it from being an unparalleled masterpiece. Perhaps that is meager criticism, but falling just short of greatness can be a harsh disappointment, like ambrosia turning to ash in one’s mouth.
I am glad to see that Kubo and the Two Strings is receiving mostly positive reviews from critics, but it didn’t really do gangbusters at the box office this weekend (though it did best Ben Hur). Hopefully it has some strong word-of-mouth and reasonable staying-power, because it really is magnificent looking film. I am curious to know if anyone else saw the film and had issues with the dialogue or pacing, and if that distracted from the overall quality. So, if you’ve seen the film, I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments section below!