I recently went to Spain for vacation, and like on many long flights, I took advantage of the duration to watch a few movies from 2016 that I missed. The one I enjoyed the most was Kubo and the Two Strings. (For the record I watched Midnight Special, Kubo, 100 Cloverfield Lane, and Selma on my flights). Kubo and the Two Strings is a delightful stop-motion animated film that was surprisingly emotional and very charming. I had an absolute blast watching this film, and I wish I gave it the service of watching it on a larger screen and not one so small located on the back of an Air France seat.
The film comes from Laika Studios and is directed by Travis Knight, who runs Laika, and makes his directorial debut with Kubo. The movie stars the voices of Art Parkinson as Kubo, Charlize Theron as his companion Monkey, Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Moon King, an unrecognizable Matthew McConaughey as Beetle (another companion of Kubo), and the likes of George Takei and Rooney Mara in supporting roles. The cast is all fantastic and the characters they play are fully developed with motivations and emotional arcs and heart. Each character, even Theron’s small wooden charm turned talking monkey, feels real. These characters are lovable and you become terrified for their safety when they battle the impressive evil spirits and demons.
The standout of the film, outside of its memorable characters and stunningly realized story, is the animation. Laika has proven itself with the likes of ParaNorman and Coraline that they can create beautiful films. But the studio takes a huge step forward in creating something masterful with Kubo. The mix of computer animation with stop motion is seamless, as Kubo is one of the most visually impressive films of the year. From the opening storm to the literally 16-foot tall skeleton stop-motion puppet, the film is marvelous in its visuals. The bright color dynamics and the oragami style characters give this film such a unique style, it becomes something truly special. I love that this film is steeped in Japanese lore and it utilizes its feudal culture and landscapes to wonderful ends in creating the film’s world and style.
Not many Hollywood films relish in (from a Western/American perspective) something so foreign and unique to a specific Asian country. Clearly, Kubo and the Two Strings held great importance for its creators. The writers, directors, and artists who worked on this film should be lauded for introducing outsiders to a culturally specific story. I won’t wander too far into the rabbit hole on this one, but I, like others, wish there were more Japanese actors representing Japanese characters. I understand that a film needs certain actors to be marketable, but at the same time, if the story is this good and the film is this wondrous to watch, then why not take that risk? Why have George Takei’s first lines be “Oh My” and play some random villager instead of being the main villain? It worked for Moana. Anyway, that’s just my liberal two cents. Back on with the review.
If I made top ten lists, Kubo would be high on the list for 2016 films. I would recommend this film to anyone, except to small children (like under 5 or 6). This film has some very surprisingly dark moments I did not expect. The story has serious dramatic heft and (without spoiling anything) Kubo has to deal with some very adult situations in terms of familial relationships and loss. As adventurous as the film is, do not stop and think that this movie is just gonna be a fun action movie for kids. The movie tells a rich and deep story and presents its lesson with complexity. This movie, like How to Train Your Dragon (maybe my favorite animated movie), deserves all the praise it receives for its story, visual style, and emotional complexity. If you haven’t done so already, please check out this film and watch other Laika Studio productions. They create some very fun and engaging films. And Kubo is their finest work yet.