Nearly nine months into 2016, and I can name like six movies I have enjoyed. Mercifully, Kubo and the Two Strings makes it seven. If you must blink, do it now.
This is Laika Entertainment’s fourth stop-motion animated feature (after Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls), so how does it rank? Well it’s certainly better than The Boxtrolls, though admittedly I can’t give a fair judgement of Boxtrolls because I nearly got into my first fist fight as an adult because of it (don’t bring toys for your dumb kids to play in the aisles with to a movie, and don’t start shouting in someone’s face when you get called out for being inconsiderate). But I digress.
Kubo is an adventure movie through and through; an eleven-year-old boy must recover an unbreakable sword, an impenetrable breastplate, and an invulnerable helmet, with the help of a talking monkey and a samurai beetle-man. Standard stuff, right? Well yeah, kinda. The story is your conventional hero’s journey with a couple of artistic flourishes here and there. I can’t fault the film too much for just telling a simple story, but Laika did give us Coraline and Paranorman (Coraline being a masterwork, and Paranorman being a worthy follow-up), so the standards are higher. But this is also the year of The Secret Life of Pets, Norm of the North, and The goddamn Angry Birds Movie; the saying goes “After you hit yourself with two hammers every day, getting hit by just one hammer feels good” and this is just a teeny tiny for-cracking-hardboiled-eggs hammer. It’s such a minor quibble.
Storytelling and music are a big motif of the film, with Kubo and his mother using a shamisen (thank you, Google) as a magical weapon and for Kubo to control his origami creations. There’s a wonderful sequence at the beginning of the film where Kubo plays his shamisen and tells stories of his dead dad in the village. Hey, a story about storytelling, and it never really gets meta with it, which is nice. I think the monkey makes one out-of-character crack about an origami samurai “looking like scissors were involved” and that’s about it.
Let’s talk the voice cast for a minute; this is one of the few aspects of the film that is hit-and-miss. First, a hit, Matthew McConaughey – he really is the most charming man on the planet. McConaughey plays a manic amnesiac samurai/beetleborg, simply named Beetle, his only vague memory being that he must’ve served Kubo’s father. There’s an ethereal quality to a performance when an actor really enjoys their role, and ho boy did he clearly have a good time; it’s unlike anything I’ve seen him do. The best way I can describe his character is a combination of Jack Sparrow and Dug the dog from Up. Yeah. That beautiful velvety-voiced man. The McConaissance continues.
A miss for the cast is Charlize Theron as Kubo’s guardian, a monkey named Monkey; which is a shame, she’s a good actress, but she doesn’t bring much to a motherly straight-man role. (Insert the picture of Charlize dragging her kid out of her car that went around the gossip circle a few months ago) It reminds me a lot of Meryl Streep’s underwhelming vocal performance in Fantastic Mr. Fox. She’s unusually flat and to use an acting term, she mostly spends the movie indicating her emotions as opposed to actually feeling them. Some people just aren’t meant to stand in a dimly-lit sound-booth alone and just act, which I think is the case here.
Another sort-of-miss is the Three-String Samurai himself, Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones… yeah). Clearly, someone at Laika is a big fan of Game of Thrones because this is the second Stark child cast as the lead in one of their movies (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Bran Stark, voiced the main character in The Boxtrolls). But y’know that show has bad actors too, right? *cough* Emilia Clark & Sophie Turner *cough*. He’s serviceable as the hero child, but only just, good child actors are hard enough to find – good child voice actors are nearly impossible.
An awesome surprise is Rooney Mara, voicing the spooky specter women in pursuit of Kubo. This goes back to how Matthew McConaughey clearly relished his role, and Rooney just went for it. I can imagine she looked at the script and thought “Wait, I get to cackle fiendishly? Oh hell yeah!”
The last two name actors are Ralph Fiennes as Kubo’s malevolent grandfather the Moon King, and George Takei as Featured Extra #2. Both are criminally underused; Fiennes is more limited by being the final boss character; but Takei, also the largest role voiced by an Asian actor, has about three lines – one of which is obviously “Oh myyyy.” Question: Does this film count as white-washing? It’s certainly a murky topic to begin with, and further complicated by this being an animated movie. But then again, I guess wouldn’t every English Dub of an Anime count as white-washing? I’m not ready to make a judgment here. Just something to think about.
** I should also mention that the design work from Laika is as spot on as always. I adore their use of UV/Blacklight effects, it's a brilliant visual that I don't think we get to see in other films, nor should we, it's that special Laika touchstone. The actual visual from the trailers that mentally sold my ticket was of Kubo's 'Aunts' floating across a river, those haunting geisha-masked women are probably some of the most evocative and memorable character designs I've seen this year. The only things even worth mentioning negatively are a sailboat Kubo composes from leaves, the idea behind it is solid, it just has a muddy color palette; and then the final monster looks a bit too much like the Leviathans in The Avengers. Again, teeny tiny egg-cracking hammer.
Man, stop-motion animation is beautiful, amiright? The work Laika is doing visually is truly inspiring at times; as part of the end credits – they show you the animation of the giant skeleton monster, and it’s not just huge in the context of the film, that puppet is easily ten feet tall. Showing behind the curtain like that has to make you want to bust out your camera and try a little animation yourself. It’s such a crime that stop-motion animation seems to always stall out with unappreciative kids, why do movies from Laika or Aardman Animations (the Wallace and Gromit people) always lose out to Dreamworks or Blue Sky? Take your kids to see these movies (just don’t drag them out to evening shows, those are for people who want to actually enjoy the goddamn movie). We gotta get them hooked; we can’t let them be the generation that ends smoking stop-motion animation.
If you have even the slightest inkling to see Kubo and the Two Strings, get out there and see it. Support your local major motion picture. In a year of garbage movie after garbage movie, you can do so much worse. Maybe you’ll even get to have a good time.
For the love of God, don’t choose to see Sausage Party over this.
Also stay for the end credits, there’s a nice cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Regina Spektor; and also stay because that crew killed themselves making this movie for you.
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Kubo and the Two Strings Director: Travis Knight Writers: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler Distributor: Laika Entertainment/Focus Features Rating: PG Run Time: 101 Min