Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop motion animated film that is directed by Travis Knight and written by Chris Butler and Marc Haimes. These three have collaborated on several other Tim Burton-esque stop motion animated movies produced by LAIKA Films: such as Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. All three of these films received a fair amount of critical praise and even their own Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars. LAIKA is an animation studio that puts a lot, if not all, of it’s energy into good storytelling and handcrafting beautiful animation.
While I’ve only seen Coraline and Kubo, I can still confidently say that LAIKA is a studio that knows what it’s doing, and does it very well. Looking at the critical reception of both of these films should let you know that there is something special happening in their art department. Kubo currently has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.4 on IMDB, which is pretty outstanding for an animated film that was not created in a Pixar studio.
After seeing the film myself, I do think these ratings are a little inflated, but rather than explain myself here, I’ll let my review do the talking.
The story for this film is very difficult for me to score, because I absolutely love when a production studio that tends to cater to younger audiences, like LAIKA, has the ambition to create an original story. Studios like Disney and Pixar, who have been doing this for ages, know that it is difficult to keep the attention of younger audiences when you’re constantly presenting them with new and original stories; hence why they produce so many sequels and reboots.
Kubo‘s story is entirely new, and there is a large population of potential movie-goers who will not see a film when they have no idea what to expect (which is sad, but a pretty concrete fact). Therefore, I have to give it an edge for trying.
Unfortunately, the problem with doing something that is entirely new is that you have to take a considerate amount of time to develop your world and its characters. While Kubo develops it’s world and characters wonderfully, the short run time forces it to take time away from very important elements of the story in the 2nd and 3rd acts of this film, making both of these acts feel very rushed compressed. With each passing scene, I was taken aback by how quickly the story was progressing, and I wanted things to move slower and have more attention to detail.
Also (I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling anything in this section), the story falls into the trap of using the same character trope more than once. Without saying “who” or “what,” at about the halfway point, we learn that a very important character has been hiding their true identity. Because of this character’s relationship with other important characters, it was very easy for me to deduce that the same trope of having a “secret identity” was probably true for another important character, and the film tries to play off this reveal as being a huge surprise/twist, but it really falls short and almost comes off as meaningless.
Voice Acting: 8.8/10
Matthew McConaughey finally took a break from making Lincoln commercials so that he could try his hand at voice acting for once (this was his first time doing voice work). And boy, did he blow it out of the park. His character, Beetle, really stole the spotlight for me. He brought in a ton of comedic relief that felt very natural.
Charlize Theron is also brilliant as Monkey. Her classic militaristic and super-serious tone fit perfectly for this character, and the chemistry between her and the other main characters is terrific.
Art Parkinson is especially great for a young child actor. He is able to stay in character very nicely and seldom delivers those classic cringey and forced lines that you often get from child actors (I will admit that I can think of one or two instances where this happened).
Ralph Fiennes is one of my favorite actors, so it’s hard for me to put him in as my only real critique for this aspect of the film. Fortunately, it has less to do with him and more to do with that rushed pacing that I mentioned in my critique of the story. His character, The Moon King, is supposed to be the primary antagonist of the film, but he is simply not given enough dialogue to really make much of an impact, which I think is a waste of a high profile actor like Fiennes.
The animation is superb, and I’m inclined to say that it is the best and most beautiful animation that I’ve ever seen in an animated film (though I’m not quite 100% confident in that proclamation just yet). Personally, I’d take stop motion animation over 3D any day, because the animators and sculptors have to be so tedious and attentive to every single frame, and there are A LOT of frames in Kubo, which is why it looks so great.
The action/fight sequences (which there are a surprising amount of for an animated film) are a very special treat to watch. I know that Japanese Anime (which I admittedly have a bias against and don’t watch much of) holds the title for being the best form of animation for action sequences, but Kubo definitely gives it a run for its money. The fight scenes were some of my favorite scenes in the film, most notably one between Monkey and one of Kubo’s aunts that takes place out at sea in a huge thunder storm.
The Message: 5/10
Is the message really that bad? Well…no, I’m just not really sure what it is. In general, you’d expect a good moral message to be against a certain way of thinking or a certain philosophy. But Kubo‘s message isn’t really against anything other than being a heartless and emotionless robot. I’m pretty sure the message is that family is important, and that family will always be important, even when they’re gone (which is pretty vague and universal).
It’s also kind of ironic that Ralph Fiennes’ character ends up being the same character as Voldemort in the Harry Potter series because of the message. There’s even a part where Kubo tells him that the absence of love is not his strength, but his weakness (just like in HP).
X-Factor: 8/10, The Most Bad-Assery Ever Seen in an Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautiful, thrilling, kick-ass animated film that is sure to entertain most audience members. I would highly recommend going to see it purely for the intent of appreciating the work that went into this film’s animation, but there is also a fairly decent and totally original story to see as well. While it is not nearly as humorous or emotional as your typical Pixar or (maybe) Disney animated film, it is able to tell its story better, and it also has killer Samurai and very powerful sorcerers to make up for it.