I have liked Laika’s last films.
(I saw an opportunity for alliteration and I took it.)
Laika, an animation company, has made the films “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” (Also “The Boxtrolls” but I haven’t seen that.”) I like the two that I’ve seen, and they both benefit from Laika’s stop-motion style. Plus, and always the most important thing in a film, they tell interesting stories.
Laika’s newest film, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” shares the former. It’s got a good animation style that works in harmony with the story. The problem is the story; it’s cliched and familiar, and done in a way where the film is keeping up with you instead of the reverse.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a Japanese-inspired fable about a mother who flees her evil family to protect her son, Kubo. A couple years later, Kubo is found by the evil family after he stays out after dark and escapes narrowly with his mother’s help. He awakes with a monkey and beetle who were magically made by his mother to help protect him from the evil family that’s still following him, along with a magical instrument that Kubo can use to make paper fly. He must look for three magical items -- an unbreakable sword, helmet, and chestplate -- that will help him defeat his evil family.
Kubo and the Two Strings is absolutely gorgeous to look at. As I’ve already said, the animation is fantastic and, since paper-folding is a thing the character Kubo uses in these fun performances at the beginning of the movie, the look of the movie being paper-like is justified. It’s also got a fantastic variety of color.
The film also has a great cast. Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, and Rooney Mara all lend their voices to the film and they all do good voicework, particularly Rooney Mara who manages to be creepy as hell and continues to be one of the greatest actors of the 21st century.
Kubo’s story has heart and charm, as well as some funny moments. Despite being a take on the “Hero’s Journey” that Joseph Campbell brought attention to, its take has some twists that work. It still manages to stay predictable, though, and the ending wraps everything up by making the lesson of the film quite obvious.
The thing that most irritates me about Kubo, however, is the editing. Everything Travis Knight does as director is good; it’s subtle and smart. The problem is that we just hold on these shots too long. It’s as if the editor wants everyone to be 100% on board with what’s happening in the story, but it should have been snappier. The story isn’t a slow one, and yet the pace was slow simply because of the way the movie was cut in the editing room. There’s also moments where the writing wants to keep everyone up to date and spells things out for us that were told by the camera. For example, there is a scene in which Kubo performs for a village with his magical instrument. The camera moves and moves, and occasionally holds on the sun, which continues to set as Kubo goes on with his performance. It was clear to me that time was important in this scene. Finally, a bell rings and Kubo rushes back to his mother. It is clear that he is on a time limit, most likely from the evil family that we’ve already established. And yet as soon as Kubo gets back, his mother talks about that time limit, why it’s there, and all that subtle direction is thrown out the window. Couldn’t we have inferred instead of spelling everything out?
Despite the problems I have with Kubo and the Two Strings, I would still recommend seeing it simply because I’m happy that in a time when Disney dominates the box office, Laika has made a movie that looks wholly unique and even put twists on a tired plot. It’s hard for wide releases nowadays to not feel like they’re churned out of a machine, and Kubo feels handmade and unique while still being fun. We should try to reward that, even if it’s not something that’s normally rewarded.
So please see Kubo and the Two Strings.