By: 3-Deep (Two Beers) –
Laika was destined to make a great movie. The Oregon-based stop-motion animation company, just barely a decade old, showed exceptional promise with their first three features, 2009’s Coraline, 2012’s ParaNorman, and 2014’s The Boxtrolls. Yet, they never quite reached their truest potential. Their incredible animation has often been met with stories that — while certainly not bad — didn’t quite rise to the same level. That changes with their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings.
The directorial debut of Laika’s recent CEO Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings is a wondrous visual extravaganza in the highest sense, and a loving tribute to the power of imagination and invigoration. It’s not merely great; it’s a near-masterpiece. It’s a captivating, evocative, and phenomenally alluring treat for the eyes and soul, and a true reminder of what great filmmaking can be, particularly in today’s tumultuous cinematic climate. It’s as rich visually as it is thematically, and there’s not a second where the magic leaves you unswept. It’ll charm, awe, and hypnotize audiences of all ages. Engaging, majestic, and absolutely spellbinding, Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s formal introduction into great storytelling. Hopefully, it’s a mere peek into their dazzling future.
Kubo and the Two Strings tells the heartwarming story of the titular Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, a.k.a. Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones), an inquisitive, brave young boy left without an eye after his belligerent grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) took it during his infancy. Guided to seclusion and safety through the roughest waters and the most troublesome weather, Kubo lives a modest life just outside the village, where he entertains the locals with a spellbinding fairy tale that’s always left without a proper ending. Though Kubo can use his awe-inspiring magical powers to create moving origami pieces for his enticed local listeners, he’s a simple boy living a life without clear direction. His path is undefined and unsure, beyond taking care of his isolated mother. He lives aimless but peacefully, in a life filled with questions and very few solutions. Soon, however, he’ll find himself with answers he never imagined possible.
During a spiritual holiday of celebration and remembrance, Kubo tries to awake the soul of his deceased father, only to find himself haunted by a ghoulish spirit (voiced by Rooney Mara) who wants to steal back his other eye. With her entrance, our young Kubo finds everyone he ever knew, including his mother, seemingly gone forever. A spell cast upon his dying mother finds him several hundred miles away from his home, left with only the companionship of a wise-but-stern talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), who’ll guide him through his journey. During their travels, they’re joined by an absent-minded human-sized beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), who’ll use his strength and skills to help them along the way. Together, they form a family bond that Kubo never had before; although, that might be put on the balance when his evil grandfather creeps back into his life.
There’s a lot to love in Kubo and the Two Strings, but the mesmerizing stop-motion animation takes precedent first-and-foremost. I lost count of how many shots there were where I had no clue how they created them through their means; I debated making one of the first drinking rules related to its stunning and always-impeccable animation, but you’d develop alcohol poisoning long before the 20-minute mark. Again, it’s a visual feat in the tallest order, and I cannot stress that enough. It’s not merely the best Laika has produced to date; it’s among the best I’ve seen in the field, joined closely by the ranks of last year’s near-perfect Anomalisa. To simply call it “radiant,” “amazing”, or “incredible” would sell it short.
Thankfully, however, the story at the center is almost equally as enthralling. Although it follows the hero’s journey structure fairly religiously, Kubo and the Two Strings also knows the power of simplicity. Magical elements are never overly-explained, and the character focus always allows their quest to feel authentic and earned, even if its final outcome is rather familiar in its execution. Much like last week’s Pete’s Dragon, it’s traditional family entertainment in the best sense, borrowing the right elements from classic folktales and Miyazaki to create a modern classic that’s rooted in comfortable, agreeable familiarity. The originality can then be found in its designs, characters and landscapes; Knight and his Laika collaborators know not to change anything that’s unbroken. It’s innovative in just the ways it needs to be, and above all else, it’s as investing as it is emotionally powerful and sound.
It’s also similar to Pete’s Dragon in that it’s never flashy, boisterous, or meandering in its entertainment value, something that’s quickly become more apparent in its kid-friendly cinematic peers (like, you know, The Secret Life of Pets). It’s classically subdued in its presentation; despite its gorgeous, eye-popping visuals, it’s humble, contemplative, and heartfelt at every possible turn. The humor is goofy, but appropriately so; it only adds to the story, and it gives Kubo and the Two Strings just the right amount of lighthearted enjoyment to assure that it never gets too heavy in its themes. In particular, McConaughey, providing his first voiceover performance, fits into the new medium warmly, playing his dim-witted beetle with enough restraint and deadpan hilarity that it never feels out of sync with the rest of the rather-serious family adventure. The voice acting on the whole is fairly good (if not as exceptional as the rest of the picture), but McConaughey is the clear standout. It’s great to know he’s going to continue pursuing it with Illumination Entertainment’s Sing at the end of the year.
Any and all complaints are absolutely minuscule. As if I haven’t gushed about the film enough, there’s little about Kubo and the Two Strings that I disliked. Some jokes didn’t land, and while they’re only a handful, they do hit with a hard clunk. Also, it’s almost entirely white voice casting is fairly disappointing, if not entirely unexpected. But that doesn’t excuse it, of course. Additionally, the ending — while true to its unassuming conventions — is perhaps a little too rushed and oversimplified, particularly in a few key moments. But to delve into those would be some serious spoiler territory, so that’s not worth exploring in-depth. Also, Kubo’s magic is sometimes narratively convenient to a fault, particularly getting into the third act. But then again, what would a fairytale be without some stretched believability? Honestly, these flaws are practically as minor as they come. There’s just too much to celebrate here. To look deeper into its minor shortcomings would be deviating from what makes Kubo so fantastical.
Kubo and the Two Strings is not merely the best animated feature of 2016 by a long shot; it’s also one of the year’s best films by a healthy margin. An absolute treasure in the rough known as this summer movie season, Knight has made a sensational, mystifying, timeless addition to his brand, and it’s a very welcome introduction into true greatness, both for his company and his blooming filmmaking career. Written with love and care by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (ParaNorman), directed to excellence by Knight, and animated to perfection by his incredible team of animators, it’s an endlessly beautiful reminder of the power in persistence and the importance in storytelling. Kubo and the Two Strings isn’t just the hero this summer needed; it’s the one we’ve been waiting for all year. Cancel your plans, skip that date and see it immediately. You’ll thank me later.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Sip: every time something completely takes your breath away (play responsibility)
Take a Drink: every time paper flies on the screen.
Take a Drink: every time Beetle says something dumb or ignorant.
Take a Drink: every time Kubo’s life is threatened.
Take a Drink: every time a main character asks an important question.
Do a Shot: after the big plot twist.