I couldn’t be more thrilled to revisit Laika Entertainment. Not only because they’re a crown jewel in the film industry of my hometown. Not only because they are the last greatest bastion of stop-motion animation, using all manner of innovations and wizardry to keep the art form alive. But also because of their very unique winning streak.
Look back at Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Not only are they all amazing films, but they’re amazing in large part because of how they consistently push the envelope in terms of creativity, ambition, and faith in the audience. Laika portrays fantasies that are so much more enthralling because they’re not limited to the safe and familiar. Much like The Secret of Nimh, The Dark Crystal, and other nostalgic childhood favorites of yesteryear (and even some of Disney’s earlier stuff, like Pinocchio), Laika isn’t afraid to scare the younger children in the audience, bringing in dark imagery and a sense of dread. This challenges the audience (especially the younger viewers) and creates a much more thrilling ride to the happy ending, yet it’s all light enough that Laika can be trusted to scare without scarring.
Laika has been turning in some great work recently, but they’ve always had the terrible misfortune of toiling in the shadow of other animation companies. It doesn’t help that Coraline (2009, also the year of Up and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), ParaNorman (2012, opposite Wreck-It-Ralph and Brave) and The Boxtrolls (2014, which also gave us The Song of the Sea, Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Lego Movie, and many others) all came out in years that were unbelievably good for animated feature films.
Yet it seems unfair to compare them, since Laika is making films that no other animation studio out there would dare try. Pixar would never have made ParaNorman and Dreamworks could never have made Coraline, just as Laika would never have made Despicable Me. Even without the differences in animation, it’s apples and oranges.
Looking at the trailers and promos for Kubo and the Two Strings, I knew that Laika would not disappoint. Every frame of advance footage was the trademark Laika blend of nightmarish imagery, childlike wonder, and superlative animation, all with a dash of comic relief. And for better or worse, with all of its strengths and flaws, what we got was a Laika film.
So what’s Kubo about? Whoo boy. Just to make it perfectly clear, there won’t be any spoilers here. Pretty much everything I’m about to tell you is conveyed to the audience within the first fifteen minutes. And even then, I might have to leave a lot of stuff out. Buckle up, folks. As Kubo would say (and he’s not kidding around when he says it), “If you must blink, do it now.”
Kubo himself (Art Parkinson) is a storyteller by trade. Every day, he goes to the local market and collects spare pocket change as he enthralls the villagers with fantastic stories about the brave warrior Hanzo and the evil Moon King. He does this by way of paper sheets, which magically fold themselves into origami dolls and act out the stories as Kubo plays his shamisen. I assume this kind of magic is relatively common in this world, since everybody reacts with the same kind of fascination anyone might give to a really good street juggler, but… no, no, gotta keep focused.
Anyway, it turns out that Kubo gets his stories from his mother. The two of them live alone in a mountain cave, and Kubo spends most of his time looking after his mother. Her mental state comes and goes, which conveniently teaches Kubo the art of the cliffhanger. But the stories are much more joyous and personal for the both of them because… well, Hanzo is apparently his father. And the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) is her father. Yeah, those stories are all real. I mean, they try to play it coy for a while, like maybe these fantasies are just the product of her dementia, but of course they’re totally real.
(Side note: No, I’m not telling you who’s voicing Kubo’s mother. Trust me, we don’t want to have that conversation right now.)
See, Kubo’s mom got her deteriorating mental state from a nasty head trauma that she sustained in the prologue. At the time, she was running away from her family, after dear old dad had taken one of his grandson’s eyes (yes, you heard me). But before the Moon King could take Kubo’s other eye, Hanzo sacrificed himself defending his wife and son while the latter two fled. So now Kubo and his mother hide in a cave, never stepping out under a night sky for fear that the Moon King would find them at last.
To repeat: There are no big twists here. By the time Kubo’s mother dies defending her son from the Moon King (who’s finally tracked them down) at the fifteen-minute mark, all of this and so much more has been told to the audience.
So, that just leaves one crucial question: Just what are the eponymous “two strings” and what do they have to do with anything? Folks, you have no idea how much I’d hate myself for spoiling that much. I’d seriously have to go through the entire film and all the major plot twists.
Just to get this out of the way now, the animation kicks ass. The movements are fluid and brisk throughout, and some characters are so lifelike that I had completely forgotten I was watching plastic move around. The Japanese imagery is beautifully utilized, and of course there’s no end to the possibilities of the “magic origami” conceit. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am for missing out on the 3D option, since nobody does 3D better than Laika and I’m sure this film in particular would be phenomenal with the glasses.
That said, I’m sorry to say that the action scenes are quite lacking. We’ve got “boss fights” against a monstrous skeleton with glowing eyes and a giant psychic dianoga, both of which look threatening enough but don’t really do much of anything. Even the big climactic fight with the Moon King himself is sadly underwhelming. Sure, he gets a few spectacular licks in, but the fight scene regrettably devolves into a sappy and overly wordy anticlimax in which the bad guy is ultimately defeated by preaching about all the reasons why he’s wrong (see also: ParaNorman). Moreover (so far as I could tell), the Moon King battles in a way that doesn’t play into the lunar theme or the Japanese motif, which leaves me scratching my head as to what this is and what it has to do with anything.
While all of the monsters in this film are effectively sold as a legitimate threat, the only ones to really deliver on that potential are the Moon King’s other two daughters (both voiced by Rooney Mara). The Sisters look creepy, they’ve got some powerful magic, and their skills with bladed weapons make them a force to be reckoned with. These characters really push our heroes to their limit, presenting us with some incredibly tense fight scenes as we’re left wondering whether our main characters will survive or come out with only minor injuries.
(Side note: The Sisters are presented with a very distinct bunraku motif that looks perfectly unsettling and terrifying. Partly because this means that we have puppet-themed characters who are themselves played by puppets. How’s that for meta?)
But while the villains are sadly underwhelming when it comes to the action scenes, they are nonetheless redeemed by outstanding presentation. The monsters may only look good, but they look REALLY good. Rooney Mara’s voice work is chilling, Ralph Fiennes turns in a brief yet delightful turn as the Moon King, and it bears repeating that all three of them are very effectively sold as terrifying antagonists by the onscreen characters and actions. But more than that, they register on a deeper level.
Something that Archibald Snatcher, Agatha Prenderghast, and the Other Mother all had in common was a deeply sincere and desperate need to be loved (or at least respected). Thus they all have at least a sliver of audience sympathy and far more dimension than your typical Saturday Morning cartoon villain. The Moon King is no exception, as he genuinely loves Kubo in his own demented way. Thus the film explores the theme of family, as the Moon King and his daughter (and Kubo, by extension) have very different visions of what family should be.
This brings me to a crucial point about the Moon King and the two Sisters: They aren’t human. In fact, they pride themselves on being immortals who are above humanity, removed from the compassion, the hatred, the heartache, and all the other thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. The obvious counterpoint is that our humanity — along with our emotions, our creavity, our honor, our compassion, etc. — is what makes us strong, and our lives are so much more precious because they could end at any moment.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that we die, but even then the film has an answer for that. And it comes right back to stories. The filmmakers submit that while stories are a method of bringing everyone together and brightening our lives, stories are also an important way of passing on knowledge and folklore and history. To put it another way, stories are a means of preserving memories. Including and especially the memories of those who’ve died. Therefore, the dead don’t just live on in the memories of their loved ones — they live on in the memories of anyone who’s ever heard their stories from secondhand or thirdhand accounts. And stories — especially really good stories — can potentially last for countless generations.
It’s true that all lives eventually end. Just as all stories eventually end. But just because something ends doesn’t mean it can’t last forever.
Moving on to our protagonists, Art Parkinson does a fine job playing Kubo. The cast also includes Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, respectively playing Monkey and Beetle. Monkey is a neat twist on the “mentor figure” archetype, playing a no-nonsense cynic who’s overly protective of Kubo. As for Beetle, he’s an amnesiac, which naturally means that anything I tell you about him will be rendered moot at some point in the story. Suffice to say that he’s a kind-hearted idiot who gives Kubo a longer leash than might be healthy.
So Kubo and Beetle get to take the piss out of Monkey while the latter chides the former two for acting like idiots. It’s a very satisfying chemistry to watch, delivered in such a way that it develops the characters in some surprising ways and gives us a few laughs along the way.
Elsewhere, you may have heard that George Takei and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa are in this movie. I’m sorry to say that Brenda Vaccaro gets more dialogue than the both of them put together. Such a damn waste. Nothing against Vaccaro, of course, but still.
Then we have my biggest complaint about the movie: The plot. The filmmakers were trying to cram A LOT into a mere 100-minute movie, and it really shows. There are huge gaping holes in the narrative, and we’re rushed from one story point to another through measures that are pitifully transparent. Easily the most prominent example concerns a special origami doll of Hanzo, a laughably contrived (“paper-thin”, if you will) plot device introduced so that Kubo would always know exactly where the story needed him to go. But by far the worst example concerns a signal so glaringly obvious that the villains stop within a hair’s breadth of sending up fireworks to spell out “THIS IS A TRAP!” but Kubo and his friends go anyway because the third act wouldn’t start until they did.
That said, there are some shortcuts that work. Kubo himself is a prominent example — he’s the son of a great warlord and a powerful magic user. If it turns out that he’s a prodigy with tremendously handy undiscovered talents — and if those talents are conveniently discovered and instantly mastered in ways that just happen to mesh with his development arc — then who’s going to argue? There’s also the fact that Kubo and his mother are both gifted storytellers, which provides a convenient yet entertaining way to shovel out exposition. Most importantly, the characters are all so intriguing that I’m honestly quite okay with sacrificing some time to develop the plot if it means spending more time to develop these characters.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a highly ambitious film. The characters are all amazing, the setting is incredibly vibrant, and there are a lot of great themes portrayed in some clever and heartfelt ways. The animation is a huge draw, as the visuals are uniformly spectacular and the movements are positively flawless. Unfortunately, the animation comes with a diminished running time, and that kneecaps the film considerably. This feels like a two-hour movie crammed into 100 minutes, resulting in a lot of shortcuts that injure the plot. Then again, if my primary complaint with a film is that I wish it had gone on longer, that’s saying something. Also, for all of the plot’s failings, there are quite a few twists and surprises that are beautifully pulled off. Some of them land better than others, but still.
The film is so entertaining, poignant, and endlessly creative that I have no problem giving the film a recommendation. Definitely go for the 3D option and don’t forget to stay until the mid-credits.