A Review of Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings: A Timeless Tale Told in Wondrous Stop-Motion

Film: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes (screenplay and story), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story)
Primary Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro
US Release Date: 19 August 2016

Young Kubo (Parkinson) lives alone with his mother in a cave on the edge of the sea. Every morning, he gets his mother out of bed and makes her breakfast before travelling to a nearby village where he spends the day telling stories. Aided by a magical instrument and plenty of origami paper, Kubo captivates the crowd completely from morning to sunset.

At his mother’s behest, Kubo never stays out after dark—until he does. At which point, he is caught up in an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery, tragedy, and love. Along the way, Kubo is guided by a protective monkey (Theron) and a man cursed to have the form of a beetle (McConaughey). With Monkey and Beetle’s help, Kubo discovers abilities he never knew he had while also learning the truth about his family’s history.

The tale told by Kubo and the Two Strings (Kubo) is one that’s been told a thousand times, but its immersive visuals paired with a deft-hand for storytelling both set the film apart.

Kubo is that rare family film that doesn’t have a whiff of laziness about it. In Knight and Laika’s hands, even talking animals—a tired imperative of animation—manage to feel fresh. The film is brimming with substance and style alike, and it’s clear that genuine care, thought, and heart were all involved in its creation. Though it possesses emotional weight, Kubo isn’t heavy, and it certainly isn’t flat. Instead, the film passes through the dark of the theater like an enchanted breeze. And even if the script isn’t perfect, the film remains so lovely and mesmerizing that it doesn’t really matter.

Visually speaking, Kubo is one of best animated films I’ve seen. It may even become a personal favorite. Since I won’t know what it’s like to grow up with Kubo the way that I did with so many Disney films, it may never affect me as deeply some of them did, but I still appreciate the great deal of work, animation, heart, and artistry that it took to make it.

There is something pleasantly strange about stop-motion, and Kubo embraces this wholeheartedly. Used as it is in the film, stop-motion evokes the uncanny while imbuing the movie with a fantastical, dreamlike quality. Visually, the world of Kubo is the world of imagination—it may take its root in reality, but it is another place entirely, and for all its otherworldliness, it attracts far more than it repels. The animation in the film is incredibly textured. It has depth. In effect, the art is as much a character as Kubo or anyone else. The smooth, flawless surfaces that dominate the industry are not to be found here. Instead, Laika presents expertly executed imperfection for audiences to get lost in, and the film is overflowing with life as a result.

Kubo also exhibits its daring and its singular identity in its narrative, albeit with less intensity and abandon. The film’s tale is timeless; it is at once pleasantly unique and totally familiar. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, and, as such, it operates within an established set of parameters. And yet, it never lets such limits stifle its creativity or sense of wonder. Importantly, Kubo also possesses enough courage not to over-explain its narrative for effect. More than other family films, it allows its characters, their journey, and its images to speak for themselves, and it doesn’t dumb itself down more than necessary. In short, Kubo balances its creative daring with enough restraint that adult audiences should have no problem falling under its spell.

For the most part, the film’s voice cast works to support Knight’s overall vision. Art Parkinson’s voice is appropriately small and earnest. Rooney Mara is also quite memorable as two of the film’s villains (known collectively as, “The Sisters”), and her cold, measured tones make for some of the most frightening moments. Ralph Fiennes is also good (and appropriately intimidating) as the Moon King, although his performance won’t surprise anyone whose heard any of his other voice work.

Though the film’s cast is strong overall, McConaughey does throw Kubo’s tone off balance from time to time. His character, Beetle, is often used for comic relief, but the jokes and McConaughey’s particular sound don’t always mesh with the rest of the film. There is something unrefined about his presence; and had his character been reworked, the film may have been much better for it.

In other ways, the film would have also been improved by a voice cast in which Asian actors weren’t relegated to only the smallest roles. But then, how would they have used McConaughey’s name to get people in the door?

Though I watched plenty of animation as a child, nearly all of it came from Nickelodeon and Disney (the most notable exception being Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoons). As an adult, I only see an animated film in theaters once or twice a year, and those films also originate from a limited number of places. I didn’t see my fist Aardman movie until Shaun the Sheep, and the most recent Dreamworks film that I remember watching is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (which came out in 2002, for any who’s counting). My knowledge of animation-like most things—is a bit more limited than I would like. As of today, Kubo and the Two Strings is the only Laika film that I’ve seen, but it certainly won’t be my last. I was more than impressed by the film, and I’m incredibly eager to see what this inventive, Oregon-based studio does next.

Until Next Time
I actually saw Kubo the weekend that it came out, but life delayed my review a bit. Regardless of how much I enjoyed it, the film has the distinction of being the first—and currently, the only—movie I’ve paid to see here in LA (which is just as meaningless as it sounds, but there you have it).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you’ve seen the film, feel free to share your thoughts on it by posting a comment below (comments are moderated, so don’t fret if you what you post doesn’t appear immediately).

If you’d like to keep up with me in between posts, you can easily follow me on twitter and letterboxd.

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