Kubo and the Two Strings strikes a wonderfully balanced note
Laika’s fourth film finds the perfect mix of eerie and light hearted
Kubo and the Two Strings
Directed by Travis Knight
Starring Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey
After three feature films — Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls — the stop-motion wizards at Laika have had ample time to experiment with their trademark blend of creepy and comedy. Although each of these past projects received critical praise (all Academy-nominated) each one seemed to struggle with the balance between creepy and goofy. In their most recent film, Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika and their distinctive style really come into their own. Amidst a lavishly crafted backdrop, Kubo avoids going overboard on both the horror and the ham to deliver a visually unique epic.
The titular character, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), lives in hiding from the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) — the malevolent immortal who stole the infant Kubo’s eye. With the magical ability to bring his origami to life, Kubo spends his days performing for villagers (including George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). One night, his past catches up with him and he must flee the village with Monkey (Charlize Theron), his no-nonsense guardian. Pursued by the Twin Sisters (Rooney Mara), he sets out on a quest to find a suit of magical armor — his only hope for safety. Along the way, he befriends and is joined by a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey) — an empty-headed but kind-hearted warrior.
In terms of structure, Kubo doesn’t stray far from the stock adventure/quest format. Its tone, however, is a shade darker than the usual children’s fare. In terms of storytelling, Kubo is closer in content to a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale than to a Pixar sequel. (When was the last time a kid’s movie featured eye-thievery?) Throughout the movie, the story often takes a turn for the darker, where another children’s film might have held back. While these twists make for a novel experience, it also means that the ending leaned towards the bitter side of bitter-sweet.
Kubo’s real weakness is pacing. The film yanks the audience from action scene to cool down at high speed and with little transition. Bits of dialogue which should have felt spontaneous instead come across as wooden or contrived, simply because they were shoehorned in at an awkward point in the action. Some scenes (especially the ending) conclude too quickly, preventing the audience time to absorb much of the emotional impact. These small lapses in pacing give the opening and closing of each scene a hit-or-miss quality.
However, Kubo’s ‘misses’ are slight and the ‘hits’ are smashing. Excepting the occasional awkwardly timed line, the characters are well written with personalities that play well together. Beetle and Monkey share a few cute, if unoriginal, ‘old married couple’ moments. And although the transitions between scenes may be rocky, each scene plays out fairly smoothly. Kubo alternates between giving its characters time to develop and throwing them into action. The former scenes are lovely, giving the audience a chance to soak in the carefully crafted claymation universe. And the almost choppy stop-motion imbues the action sequences with a musical rhythm that flows beautifully through the puppets.
At the halfway mark of 2016, Disney and Pixar seemed to have shut out all competition in terms of story-heavy animated features. Thus, it’s refreshing to see a third-party contender produce an original tale, which, if not as polished, shines with its own unique visual charm and characters. Kubo is a wonderfully atmospheric experience and deserves praise for exploring both an unconventional storytelling and animation medium.