Directed by Travis Knight, “Kubo and the Two Strings” tells the story of Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy hunted by his grandfather, a moon spirit (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). After the death of his father, a great warrior trying to protect him, he and his mother run away to a village. Kubo is gifted with magic that erupts with his playing of a stringed instrument, magic that transforms paper into different shapes and animates objects. When his grandfather and his witch aunts find him, they hunt him across the country. Only by collecting his father’s armor, aided by a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai cursed with no memory and transformed into a beetle (Matthew McConaughey), can Kubo hope to succeed.
Laika Studios has produced some gorgeous animation over the last several years, from “Coraline” to “Boxtrolls”, but “Kubo” is truly inspiring, evoking 17th century Japanese imagery. Whether it be a tidal wave or an entire ship made out of leaves, the frames are crisp, colorful and wonderfully lit the whole way through.
The tale of a boy who loses his parents is very elemental and his quest involves monsters and witches and animals and magic, told through the guise of an old fable. It is very adult for a children’s tale, but it works for all audiences. The filmmakers should be commended for not dumbing down the plot or the themes to create a “children’s movie” as so many other studios do.
The issues however come in two forms: Westernization and character revelations. The use of Hollywood stars as the principal characters in a Far East story seems a little culturally insensitive. And some of the comic relief, the asides, some plot interpretations in general seem more Western-world based than sticking to the theme and culture of the film.
In addition, some character revelations are downright bizarre. Without giving anything away, the origins of Monkey and Beetle need not be so dramatic. Their arcs should be more simple. The plot is complicated enough even for an adult. Keeping the story simpler, especially at the conclusion, is imperative to creating a stronger emotional impact. The last thing you want is for your audience to be confused as the climax occurs.
With “Kubo”, Laika has achieved their best film to date however, they have yet to make their great film. “Coraline”, “The Boxtrolls”, “Paranorman” and “Kubo” are all good films, some of them very good films, but none of them are great films. Pixar has great films. Disney has great films. Studio Ghibli has great films. Laika is right on the edge of that truly transformative movie, the movie that is near perfection. All that keeps them back is a flawless story. “Kubo” is close, a very good film and one of the best animated films you’ll ever see, but it is not quite the classic they yearn for yet.