Did YOU see Kubo and the Two Strings?
Prior to our screening of Kubo and the Two Strings, a thought dawned on me. There seems to be a lot of animated movies coming out right now. The thought seemed particularly appropriate as trailer after trailer prior to Kubo rolling was for one animated film after the next: Sing, The Secret Life of Pets, Storks, Trolls, and the list presumably goes on and on. With so many animated films flooding the mainstream market, there is a temptation towards cynicism and an off-hand dismissal as all these films being endemic of another lazy trend. But, I feel safe in saying that Kubo and the Two Strings won’t be one of the films to get labeled as part of that trend.
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the story of a remarkable boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), the son of Hanzo, a great samurai warrior. Kubo is gifted with magic powers that he uses to bring his origami creations to life to tell thrilling stories to the local townsfolk, while also caring for his ailing mother (Charlize Theron). However, Kubo is thrust into a thrilling quest of his own when it turns out his mother’s stories of her dangerous and vengeful family coming after Kubo turn out to be completely true.
Part of what made Kubo seem like such a stand-out in its trailers compared to the raft of other animated films on its horizon was its incredibly unique and beautiful art style and animation, and it certainly does not disappoint in the film proper. Being entirely stop motion animated, one would likely expect a fair bit of jerkiness, but Kubo’s animation is delightfully smooth and flows beautifully from one frame to the next. Not being an animator of any kind, I can only imagine the sheer precision of craft that Laika (the animation company responsible for Kubo) has, but all that care and effort has resulted in a stop-motion animated experience that is close to indistinguishable from other kinds of animation. The models themselves are also fantastic right down to the smallest of details, and none are wasted in Kubo’s careful crafting of a visually stunning and charming world that is as delicate and intricate as the little origami creatures that Kubo brings to life, flowing seamlessly and effortlessly through all kinds of beauty, from simple, to majestic, to haunting. Make no mistake about it, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best-looking movies of the year.
But there is more to Kubo than just its visuals and unique animation style. At its heart, Kubo is a very simple story – a story about stories, in many ways – about how those tales can give us the strength and courage to barrel through adversity, and how people we love and care about can live on forever through our memories. The film’s plot is incredibly simple in its execution, perhaps almost too simple at times, but this is often forgotten in the wake of its earnest and simple charms. Kubo’s world is populated by an endless parade of endearing and likable characters, whose interplay of interactions and dialogue are smooth and naturalistic, and aren’t light on charm, and humor. The balance of tone throughout is excellently maintained, as Kubo feels like a wonderful adventure while also at times being incredibly somber and thoughtful, and these shifts in tone and mood never feel out of place or unwarranted. While Kubo is for the most part a fairly family-friendly film, it does have a pronounced dark streak to it that would likely leave a few young’uns with some lovely nightmares. Without spoiling too much, there are some scenes and moments that are genuinely creepy and unsettling. But all told, the darkness in the film is balanced out by an unyielding and surprisingly optimistic approach to its dark material, making Kubo a refreshingly mature and thoughtful take on many topics and ideas that are oftentimes overly simplified or presented in a heavy-handed manner.
In spite of its nuanced handling of themes and ideas, however, Kubo struggles somewhat with its pacing and plotting. Plot-wise, Kubo adheres very rigidly to a very stock-standard Heroes’ Journey-esque structure, almost to a tee. The end result is a plot that at times was a little too familiar, and more than a little predictable. While it does deviate in places, these deviations are less artistic license and more just omission, which results in the film’s plot feeling like its missing important moments at times. This has a noticeable impact on Kubo’s pacing, which becomes more apparent later on the film than in its early goings, which for the most part unfolds at a natural speed. Toward the middle, however, things start moving very rapidly, to the point where a great deal of character motivations and developmental moments feel like they’re lost or glossed over in the film’s attempt to accelerate things toward its conclusion, resulting in a narrative that feels uneven and at times unnaturally truncated in places.
But as I already said, Kubo often overcomes its flaws with its incredible charm, and a sizable amount of the charm comes from its performances, pretty much of all of which are top-notch efforts from its star-studded cast. Art Parkinson is wonderful as Kubo, imbuing him with an endless supply of childish affability and charm. Charlize Theron turns in an equally wonderful and powerful performance in her own role as Kubo’s mother, bringing an excellent mix of passion, power, and emotion. Rooney Mara, as Kubo’s evil twin aunts, delivers a suitably unsettling and chilling performance, with just the right outbursts of furious emotion. Even Ralph Fiennes, with his relatively limited screen time compared to his co-stars, turns out a strong performance. The only performance that felt flat in Kubo and the Two Strings was Matthew McConaughey’s. While McConaughey’s performance was by no means poor, and for the most part solid, there were occasions where he came across as slightly too subdued or reserved at times where the film called for something more. That said, however, McConaughey’s performance wasn’t necessarily distracting, merely underwhelming given the other great performances that anchor the film.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a marvelous feat of engineering and animation that makes for one of the most charming and unique films of the year; endlessly endearing, and with a remarkably mature approach to its oftentimes dark subject matter. The only thing that prevents Kubo from achieving “true classic” status are its issues with plot and pacing, which hold the film back from being the wholly satisfying experience that it so promises to be. Even in spite of this, I can’t help but whole-heartedly recommend Kubo and the Two Strings to both adults and children alike as a truly worthy example of how animation can impact us on levels that the real world can only dream of doing.