Stop…Stop Motion Time.
You know, we don’t give smaller studios the love and attention they deserve sometimes. Sure, we throw accolades and box office returns to Pixar and Dreamworks, but what about the Laika’s of the world? Well scratch that, nobody is like Laika Animation. This a one studio conservation effort to keep the art of stop motion animation alive and well. Taking on people who used to work on the California Raisins, the company has gone from strength to strength from Coraline to the excellent Paranorman to The Boxtrolls. And here they come again, with some frankly insane looking art.
Our titular hero, Kubo, is a one-eyed boy caring for his severely brain-damaged mother at a remote fishing village (because children’s movie?) by putting on magical shows for the townsfolk with his two-string guitar that can make origami come to life. His mother shows signs of lucidity when nightfall comes but she constantly warns him to never go out in the dark. But Kubo doesn’t make it back home in time one night and his deadly aunts (both played by Rooney Mara) appear to take his other eye to satisfy their father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo’s mother sacrifices herself to save her son, but not before telling him to defeat the Moon King, he’ll secure his father’s magical armor. She also brings a monkey talisman life; taking on the name of…well, Monkey (Charlize Theron), the ape takes Kubo on a journey to defend himself that also leads a cursed samurai trapped in the form of a giant, forgetful Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to join them on their quest.
I’ll get my biggest complaint right out of the way, because I know some critics are already calling this movie a “fable” or “fairy-tale” or “bedtime” story set-up. When in reality…this is video game shit. Seriously, Kubo has to seek out and get a magical breastplate, a indestructible sword, and a magical helmet in order to defeat the
Big Boss, sorry Moon King. Oh, also Kubo and his party have to fight off some mini-bosses in the form of his aunts. Typical Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda kind of shit that would have made this film a forgetful children’s film were it not for three key ingredients that elevate the material.
First is tone, because this children’s film is dark as fuck. Characters die, and they stay dead; doom hangs over the main characters’ lives but the mood is counterbalanced by the the second key component that makes this film special, the characters. Kubo is a three-dimensional character, played very well by newcomer Art Parkinson, who doesn’t act like a brat and has to be one of those children who’s been forced with adult responsibility due to his mother’s disability. His magical abilities in controlling paper is where the kid in him comes alive as he weaves his stories for others and fights his enemies, but he bounces exceptionally well off of his more well known costars.
Charlize Theron sells her performance as Monkey, acting like a surrogate mother figure to young Kubo. She’s serious, commanding, cautious, and bossy, frequently lecturing Kubo when he gets too cocky…so yeah basically any odd Cuban or Korean mom. But her performance is near perfection when she’s opposite of Matthew McConaughey-hey-hey’s Beetle. Unlike Monkey, Beetle is more positive and confident of Kubo’s abilities and wants to encourage him to go even bigger with his powers. Simultaneously, he also deals with an affliction Kubo’s too familiar with, a short memory that fails Beetle to recognize how he winded up in this predicament to begin with…or even his own warrior abilities.
The trio works perfectly with each other, bantering and bickering but caring for each other when the situation calls for it. A de facto family that only Vin Diesel could be proud of. The dynamic works exceptionally well when they all have to fight together, which brings me to the final key component that makes Kubo and the Two Strings something truly special: the animation. Holy fucking shit, this is drop dead gorgeous, made only all the more impressive through the power of stop motion animation.
To adequately describe why this was so impressive, you need to appreciate how water moves and flows, how air gently moves typically stationary objects and how lighting affects shadows on people and environments. Using computers, for sure you can have a studio easily animate it and maybe it’ll look quite beautiful. But to painstakingly sculpt a giant environment and also craft multiple models of various characters, then take photos of all of that shit one at a time and make sure it’ll look beautiful. And this is where Laika puts every studio out there to shame, it’s breathtaking to see just how smoothly everything flows to the point you could have mistakenly seen this as some computer effect.
But no, tons of men and women went into a studio every day with cameras to adjust everything perfectly. Every particle of water, every blow of air, and ever blade spark was timely and perfectly added to each and every second of the 104 minute film. For this alone, this movie is well worth the price of admission to a theater.
But…and there’s always a but, I can’t completely love it. The ending is a pure emotional climax, that if you’re into it then it’ll affect you beautifully. But if you’re not? Well, it’s still a pretty movie to see. And the climax of the film is when you finally confront the Moon King, and while every character has been building him up as this super bad ass…he’s a bit underwhelming when Kubo finally confronts him. Not really a dealbreaker, but I do believe the film blew its load way too early.
And while I had a strong emotional connection to the main three characters, the resolution didn’t feel complete to me. Perhaps if I had more development or a slightly different ending, I could have appreciated the resolution a bit more, but I just couldn’t feel the lowpoint the movie was clearly expecting me to have. Still, I think there’s plenty of kids out there who would have such a connection, so perhaps they’ll get more out of it.
While my complaints do bring this movie down a notch, you really need to check this out in theaters. This movie is truly a looker to behold, so I’m giving this a very, very high…