Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings [2016] is the most recent outing from LAIKA studios who are the absolutely brilliant stop-motion-oriented minds behind Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). Kubo follows their titular character (voiced wonderfully by Art Parkinson), a young Japanese boy with aptly named sidekicks Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) on a journey in search of ancient weapons, origins, and above all the meaning of family.

Begin Again: “If you must blink, do it now” Kubo solemnly commands. A monstrous, towering wave swells in tandem with Dario Marinellis' compelling score as a lone woman swaddling a toddler stares certain death in the face from her boat. The rest of the film is almost as good as this near-perfect opening. Kubo's pacing in the first two acts is absolutely spot on as you’re constantly asking questions that are answered promptly while being met with a new one for everyone answered. This makes for a sharp, engaging story until it all becomes a bit much in the third act and Kubo slightly stumbles under its own weight. I only touch on this immediately as I’m about to lather on fairly thick praise for just about every other aspect.

The Boy With the Thorn in His Side: While Kubo is on the surface an action/adventure/quest film it’s nothing without its cast of central characters holding it together, the most central of course being Kubo. There’s something everything can relate to in Kubo, he’s a boy that’s lost his father and while he loves his village and his mother he wants more out of life. What are his true origins? What happened to his father? Who is he meant to be? Save for the specific father-related issues these are universal questions while being unique enough to draw a nice line between “hero's journey archetype” and “specifically unique character no one can relate to”. His immature, brash hero shtick is nicely complimented by the strict, attentive Monkey who doesn’t take any of Kubo's guff and keeps him in line while also balancing Beetle who is the Nick Frost to Kubo's Simon Pegg. Together these 3 make an incredibly compelling core as the film takes them through some classic “quest” trials and tribulations.

Band of Outsiders: No quest film would be complete without dramatic villains with vague family ties and trust me this is not a department in which Kubo fails to deliver. Turns out Kubo’s mother has somewhat of a checkered past, a checkered past that takes the form of her twin sisters voiced with absolute malice by Rooney Mara and a very upset father voiced by the always menacing Ralph Fiennes. To go into more detail would be to spoil the film, suffice it to say this is far from a happy family and they’ve got a few bones to pick with the unknowing Kubo. Also to touch on the idea of quest film archetypes I just want to note that Kubo really delivers on the warm, Spielberg-ian feeling of a true “quest” flick. There’s a certain visually arresting big boss fight that’s incredibly reminiscent of The Last Crusade, there’s one or two family related issues that feel directly in line with Star Wars and honestly Kubo has more heart and captures this feeling better than Spielberg's own animated quest film The Adventures of Tintin. The action-oriented-quest-film-with-a-heart-of-gold (or AOQFWAHOG as absolutely no one calls it) is an ever waning genre which makes it increasingly refreshing to see films like Kubo fighting to keep that tradition alive.

Here’s Looking At You, Kid:  While obviously, the basis of any good film is the story and the writing it truly is the visuals in Kubo which elevate to something truly spectacular. This something I cannot overstate; Kubo is without a doubt one of the most beautifully animated films I have ever seen. LAIKA has clearly perfected their stop-motion process on this film as it blends the practical, tactile warmth of objects you can tell were physically photographed by real humans with absolutely beautiful, seamless CGI used only in moments where anything else would have been impossible. Everything in Kubo is absolutely dripping with detail and it’s incredibly evident that an intense amount of artistry went into every single frame of this film. At a certain point during the film, I had to consciously tell myself to stop thinking about how they did every shot, pick my jaw up off the floor and just go along for the ride. Also in classic LAIKA fashion before the credits there’s a time lapse of some puppeteers animating a certain scene in the film which just drives home how hard people worked on this and how arduous stop motion can be. Every hat I own is absolutely off to the people over there, in a world of Minions and Ice Age 5s LAIKA is continually pushing every boundary possible and making truly unique art.

This is the End: In short, Kubo is a downright achievement in animation. It blends absolutely flawless visuals with a compelling narrative and strong performances from its entire cast. That being said, it’s not perfect. Again there are some pacing issues near the latter half of the film that cause it to slightly stumble in my opinion and this is one of the very rare films where I feel like it could have actually benefited from a longer runtime. Other than those gripes nearly everything else about the film is flawless and Kubo is not something to be missed. As of right now it’s performing, unfortunately, worse than expected at the box office, in a summer of Suicide Squad, Independence Day: Resurgence,and Warcraft films like Kubo are all the more important. Please get out to your local cinema and support films like this, they are important. Vote with your wallet.

At the end of the day films like Kubo and the Two Strings are growing increasingly rare.
This is a truly unique and beautiful film that, while flawed, you’ve got to see to believe. If you must blink, do it now.