Kubo and the Two Strings and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Travis Knight
While Disney and Dreamworks are constantly fighting over dominance for CG animated features, studios like Aardman and Laika are still making an argument for more traditional forms of animation with films like Paranorman and The Pirates. Now we’ve got this movie which hopes to stand alongside some of the bigger hits this summer like Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets while also finding a spot in theaters just as the latter is starting to leave and Pete’s Dragon is under performing. Can the latest Laika creation not only manage to be an excellent film but be the big hit to end the summer with, or is this movie all style and no substance? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows young Kubo (Art Parkinson) who’s living with his mother in a cave that’s within walking distance of a nearby village. Why are they living there? Well apparently Kubo’s mother is the daughter of some super powerful dude known as the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) who can do… stuff. Okay, I’m not sure what his powers are, but he ripped out one of Kubo’s eyes when he was an infant, and his mother just barely managed to get away with him; though at a severe price as she was injured during the escape and now suffers from memory loss. That only leaves Kubo to take care of her (though I’m not sure how they survived long enough for him to be able to do that) and he makes money by using his magic powers to put on fantastic origami shows for the people of the village. Seriously, Kubo’s got some badass magic powers that he’s able to conjure up with his Shamisen which can put on very elaborate stop-motion performances by Origami dolls, and you’d think that powers like this would either earn him enough to move his mom into a nice home or would brand him as a witch. Still, things seems to be going well as Kubo goes about his day to day life busking for coins on the sidewalk, when he stays out too late one night which gives the Moon King a chance to find him (I guess that guy can see everything at night) and sends out his daughters, who are also Kubo’s aunts (Rooney Mara), to find him. Kubo’s mother however manages to find him first and uses her remaining magic to send him off somewhere else while also bringing a charm to life in the form of a monkey (Charlize Theron) because apparently Kubo’s mother can do that. From there, we’ve got a whole lot more exposition as apparently the monkey knows what Kubo needs to do next and the end up finding a Beetle Samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to tag along on their adventure. Can Kubo stop his evil grandfather and save his mother? How exactly does this monkey know all this stuff if it’s only been alive for like a day or so? Most importantly, how many MacGuffins do they plan to stick in this movie!?
I really did like this movie a lot, but it ended up feeling kind of unsatisfying by the end. Maybe I was expecting more from the Japanese aesthetic or maybe I was expecting Kubo’s quest to have a larger scope then it ended up having (I’m still not sure if it’s all supposed to be a dream), but I left the theater feeling that it hadn’t lived up to its potential. There’s too much exposition, not enough for Kubo to do other than take orders, and the villains are pretty much a non-presence for most of the movie. Hell, we don’t even get to see the big bad guy until almost the two thirds mark and even when we do we have no idea of his power or even are given a reason to dislike them other than secondhand accounts. For a movie this visually stunning in so many places, the story itself is very TELL NOT SHOW, which the gorgeous stop motion animation can only do so much to make up for.
The epic quest here is for Kubo to find his father’s battle armaments which is comprised of three pieces; A sword, a helmet, and a breastplate. Why the pieces are scattered across the land isn’t made clear; nor is the necessity of these peices as Kubo can’t swing a sword and the armor would probably be way too big for him. Even if he does find the pieces, the ultimate goal isn’t explained other than to KEEP KUBO SAFE… by never taking off the armor I guess? At no point does Monkey (who’s the only one who knows anything) stop and explain whether or not Kubo will have to kill the Moon King or if he needs to strengthen his Shamisen Magic or much of anything really other than finding the armor pieces. It’s odd because there are points in this that are violent and the situation becomes a clear case of life and death, but then at other times it feels more like a fever dream or something more along the lines of an Alice in Wonderland story. As far as we can tell, the rest of the world (which I guess is represented by this one village) knows about stuff like magic and the Moon King, but it never seems to affect their daily lives, which ends up begging the question of what the stakes are. If Kubo fails in his quest… so what? If Kubo loses his other eye and joins his grandfather in the heaves… then what happens? A lot of this could have been fixed if they had given the villains something to strive after other than Kubo or if the movie had bothered to have the Moon King show up a few times before the halfway point. Give us a reason to hate the villains! I know they raze a village to the ground at some point, but we don’t even see it happen and it’s another example of them TELLING instead of SHOWING!!
Despite all this lack of information though, the movie is STILL bogged down almost entirely with exposition. With THIS magic, Kubo can do THIS. With THAT magic, Kubo gets THAT. The monkey says they need to find three things because of reasons. There’s an origami doll that’s created from Kubo’s subconscious magic I guess (it’s crafted while he’s dreaming) and it apparently knows where to find the three things because of reasons. Is it supposed to be the ghost of his dad? I don’t think so considering how the movie plays out, and I don’t even remember how the origami doll exited the movie or if it even got a proper sendoff. Whenever the movie reveals a twist (of which there are many) it then spends several minutes explaining what the implications are. And STILL things go unexplained! If anyone can tell me what the damn Moon Kingdom does, they were either paying WAY more attention than I was or they’re straight up lying because the only time it’s even brought up is towards the end of the second act (during the backstory for Kubo’s parents) and even then it’s still vague as to what the Moon Kingdom is, what it does, and if there are more than four people there. Is it just one family? Are they aliens? Gods? Sorcerers? We never find out. The movie ends up missing the forest for the trees so much that I know more about how much Kubo’s aunts hate his mother (which they explain like four times) than I do about whether or not Kubo can breathe underwater, which he seems to do at one point in the second act.
Now that’s all the bad stuff, and honestly its’ just ONE bad thing that really got under my skin. Pretty much everything else here is spectacular, from the beautiful animation and beautiful art design, to the pitch perfect music and solid voice acting. The action scenes are much more brutal than you’d expect from a PG movie, and while not EVERY one of those scenes impressed me (I thought the skeleton was a bit underwhelming), it’s still some of the best action you’ll find in a movie this year. True, there’s not a whole lot as the movie is more about Kubo and his journey rather than his protectors kicking ass, but the action that is there is better than most of the big budget movies we got this summer. It’s a movie that prizes its moments and its themes over having a cohesive story; and while I was annoyed that the damn thing didn’t make sense or had little to no stakes, it’s definitely an experience to see something like this in the theater. The closest comparison I can make is to James and the Giant Peach (a Laika movie before Laika was founded) which also was very imaginative and was heavily focused on the personal growth of its main character as they’re surrounded by wacky sidekicks, but while I though James embraced its dreamlike nature (distinctly separating the real world and the fantasy world), this movie feels a tad uncertain about how literally we’re supposed to be taking things. Still, if that’s something you can get past then this movie is pure (if slightly flawed) magic!
Now there is one more thing I do want to bring up as I think it’s not much more than an annoyance to the overall picture, but is something that we can’t really ignore. For a movie that is SO Japanese in its art direction, themes, character design, and music, there is a surprising lack of Japanese people who worked on this movie, either on the production side or as voice actors. The only times you’ll hear someone who is ACTUALLY Japanese voicing someone in this is for Villager Number Whatever; including the legendary George Takei who’s only on hand to say his famous line and maybe two or three other things. Fine. You’ve got Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey in here to sell the movie, and they play fantasy creatures so fair enough I guess. Did Kubo have to be voiced by a white kid though? Did Rooney Mara have to play two of the main antagonists who are Japanese women? Did Ralph Fiennes need to play the Moon King when you had George Takei RIGHT THERE who would have knocked that role out the park? The thing is that no one in this does a bad job in their role (not even Art Parkinson as Kubo) and I did absolutely love the art design in this as it seems clear that Laika did their homework when designing this world. It’s just worth pointing out that for a movie that seems to be so in love with Japanese culture and their aesthetics, that it seems a bit odd that there are next to no Japanese voices (either literally or metaphorically) associated with it.
In a year that gave us The Angry Birds Movie, Ratchet &Clank, and Norm of the North, there’s no doubt that this movie stands tall and is probably the best kids movie this year; maybe even better than Zootopia for a certain audience. I’m harsh on this movie, but only because of how great it is that the flaws are that much more apparent. If they had tightened up the script a bit, reigned in the exposition, and made the stakes much clearer, then this would have a definite spot in my top ten of the year. As it stands, it still might end up on that list, but it’s a shame that a movie THIS beautiful and THIS perfect in places couldn’t avoid these issues that hold it back. I still absolutely recommend you go out there and see this movie, but maybe lower your expectations a bit before going in.
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