By: Muneeb Arshid
The last few years have produced many great animation flicks worthy of contention come awards season. You always have the contenders from Disney and Pixar, as well as films from the now-on-hiatus-but-possibly-defunct Studio Ghibli but also from some of the lesser known animation studios such as Laika. A relatively new studio, formed only in 2009 and founded by none other than Nike CEO Phil Knight, Laika has established themselves to be quite an adept animation studio that focuses solely on stop-motion animation. Laika has already garnered an Oscar nomination for The Boxtrolls back in 2014 and they have consistently proven that they can create quality projects. Now, they bring us Kubo and the Two Strings, and if you thought that The Boxtrolls or Paranorman were great, Kubo might just be their best venture so far (albeit with problems).
Kubo is directed by Phil Knight’s son Travis Knight in his directorial debut here, after having lent his hand in the animation department for past Laika films (Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls). The story is about a boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, who some may know as playing Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones) who spends his day taking care of his mother (voiced by Charlize Theron) while telling stories to the locals in the village using his magical guitar to garner up origami visuals as his supporting characters. However, Kubo’s mother is keeping a secret from him about his father and the circumstances surrounding his death. All Kubo knows is that he has to come back home before sunset, and be in the guardianship of his mother’s magic to avoid detection of The Moon King (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) who has a vendetta against his mother and vows to take it up against Kubo.
The story is about a boy learning about his past, but simultaneously learning about the present and the future. He is accompanied on a quest to find a magical suit of armour which will protect him against The Moon King by a monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Through the journey, Kubo learns to first and foremost control his magic and be able to harness that magic in a proper way. More importantly, Kubo figures things about his past that made him agitated back in the village because he did not understand why things were not working for him (either directly or indirectly) at that time.
The story, however, isn’t the most engaging that we’ve seen from an animation. Yes, it’s a fun, light-hearted affair (for the most part, with quite heavy bits mixed in as well) where kids and adults will interpret differently about why Kubo is undertaking this journey. There are many instances during the film that felt as though the story could’ve been fleshed out a little more, there just seemed to be a simplistic nature to the story. Kubo has endured personal and familial hardships including the loss of his parents which he now has to overcome. He goes on a quest to find something that will help him overcome the problems. During the course of the journey, he encounters difficulties during the various sub-quests which he must overcome. Finally, he has to confront the being responsible and finish them once and for all.
However, throughout the entirety the film, there is a clear line of good and evil where the characters are clearly defined. The henchmen of The Moon King known as The Sisters (voiced by Rooney Mara) are so stereotypically evil with their dark tone and clouds and rain and lightning following them in their footsteps. While Kubo and his clan are cheerily going towards the end of their journey in lighter tones (both visually and thematically). But, The Moon King, is the one character where the film has to figure out whether he is on the side of good or evil. Visually the character seems to be just like one of the old men in the village that adores Kubo, but at the same time, the intentions of this person are so inherently evil that different audiences may interpret different things depending on what clings to them about the character.
In terms of the characters themselves, it is quite a mixed bag, where kudos are given to both Parkinson and McConaughey for their portrayals of Kubo and Beetle respectively. There is such a likeable quality to both of their characters, where Kubo is the keen student/son who is admiring this world that he has been brought up in dealing with the danger that surrounds him. Beetle, on the other hand, brings a much-needed sense of humour to the story with very good comedic timing from McConaughey especially during the scenes with Monkey and their playful interplay. Speaking of Monkey, some of the dialogue lines for Charlize Theron are very hammy and make her character sound very clunky with very little enthusiasm. A lot of it has to do with the character itself, as Theron has to balance a mother/teacher/friend trichotomy when dealing with Kubo as Monkey. However, she loosens out once Beetle shows up which enhances the film from the characters standpoint.
If there is one thing that strings this film together, with its weak-ish plot and all, would be its drop-dead gorgeous animation. Some of the shots in this film are so mesmerising and look so photoreal that you did forget, for many shots, that you were watching a stop-motion animation. Because a lot of this film is about the landscapes of the world, the animation techniques work its magic, be it the opening open-water sequence, or the trek across the desert sequence, or the animations involved in the magical guitar sequences producing the origami. The virtual camerawork done by Frank Passingham is marvellous as he employs the use of wide shots during the sequences where you can marvel at the landscapes that this film has to offer. Coupled with the cinematography is the beautiful soundtrack of the film, that uses the oriental style of music, popularised in the Kung Fu Panda series, to perfection.
Speaking of similar franchises, there are a lot of seeming similarities between the Kung Fu Panda series and Kubo, with the two movies using a very similar setting, having very similar sounding scores that take you to an imaginative journey to the Far East, and having two characters, who are very likable, but also have their own personal problems that they overcome to become the heroes of their respective villages. Kubo and the Two Strings is, however, the stronger film, as it hasn’t fallen into the trap of a franchise (just yet), and still has a feeling of originality to it, something that seems lost on the Kung Fu Panda series.
Even with its issues with the plot and some characters, the TFL crew give Kubo and the Two Strings a very solid B+ (8.0/10).