“May be the finest looking animated film of the year”

by Steve Pulaski

Laika Entertainment has felt like the quiet, more reserved kid in the classroom, that spent his or her time working on smaller, more low-key projects while their colleagues Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Illumination churned out films with nine-figure budgets that went on to triple them in no time. The studio, responsible for films like Coraline,ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, their most recent film, and now Kubo and the Two Strings, crafts mythical, magical animated wonders, capitalizing on the difficult but rewarding animation that is stop-motion. They give audiences something visually unique and different to diversify a field disproportionately revolving around bright and colorful CGI animation. Laika’s films are generally much darker and grimmer in look and tone, asserting their difference from competition in every respect.

Kubo and the Two Strings, unsurprisingly, is a beautifully made and detailed film. Its a constant visual wonder; a swashbuckling adventure one-minute, a landlocked one the next, and when it starts to bring origami-style characters to life, you can’t help but marvel at what a treat you’re getting. Even in the face of fantastic animated efforts this year, such as Zootopia and Finding Dory, Kubo stands on its own, even if its animation, at the end of the day, winds up being its more attractive and commendable quality in the face of a pretty standard story.

The film is set in ancient Japan, where a young boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), who only has one eye, lives with his mother after his warrior father’s death. Kubo is mesmerized by stories of warriors and brave fighters he has looked up to all his life, and his chance to be brave and resilient like them, and his father, comes when their small village is attacked and his mother gives Kubo a set of wings in order to fly to safety. Awakening in a blizzard, Kubo meets Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), and eventually Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai, both of whom want to help Kubo find his father’s armor and sword. Just like his mother, who used to have dreams of origami figures coming to life, Kubo’s dream one night summons a small warrior figure made of paper, who helps guide them along the way through non-verbal gestures with his sword. It’s a grand-scale, animated “road movie” if I’ve ever seen one.

Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by
Travis Knight
Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey
Release Date
19 August 2016
Steve’s Grade: C+

Kubo and the Two Strings takes us through a great deal of locations in ancient Japan, feeling like a myth or an old-age storybook brought to life through limitless animation and colorful, creatively detailed sets that undoubtedly took an extensive amount of manual labor. Special effects like lights, fire, and floating papers blend perfectly with the film’s setting and gorgeous look, and do not offset the film or provide it with a sense of inorganic backdrops or inclusions. It all looks wonderful and it all looks meticulously thought-out and put-together.

Similar to how I felt after watching The Boxtrolls, though, which I more-or-less enjoyed, I’m unsure of how many kids and younger children will respond to Kubo and the Two Strings. This isn’t necessarily the kind of film many kids would be begging to see – at least in the sense of anticipating a packed audience – and the end of August isn’t the friendliest month to launch a kid film, especially one this different. The story at hand, while more about mythology and Japanese tradition, inevitably fails to live up to the standards and the look of the animation, and eventually becomes reliant on simple human emotions of sympathy rather than anything more.

The film’s issue is a bit like the one I took with Pete’s Dragon last week, in that you really can’t learn or experience much from this story other than the fact that it is an uplifting one interjected by moments of peril and great uncertainty. In the face of other animated films this year, specifically the aforementioned ones, you could extract a key element that gave the film layeredness. You can’t really do that beyond the animation and the source of inspiration for Kubo and the Two Strings.

Nonetheless, this is still a powerful film in its visual landscape alone. It’s an uncontested marvel in terms of what may be the finest looking animated film of the year, second maybe to the bustling cityscapes of Zootopia, that felt like living, breathing communities filled with activity. But above that, I find myself at a crossroads with Kubo and the Two Strings between admiration and complete and total disconnectedness with the film, and that’s a position I always hate to be in, especially with a film I really have a feeling is pretty good.