A movie like Kubo and the Two Strings is a bit of an anomaly for me. It's certainly one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen - heck, ever made - but beyond that I found little to hold on to. Is it a kid's movie? I sure hope not. The adolescent in me would have been bored. Yet between the blandly basic humor, the flat expositional dialogue, and the focus on storybook awe rather than thematic weight makes a film that, as an adult, felt below me. Ew, did I really just say that?
Using cutting edge stop-motion animation from Laika Studios, Kubo tells the tale of a young boy on a magical quest to obtain a magical suit of armor to help him defeat a magical demon from his magical family's magical past. Helped along by a magical samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey, doing his best Robin Williams), and a magical monkey statue brought to life with magic (Charlize Theron), young Kubo is thrust into a fantastical world with little explanation outside of as-needed-in-the-moment exposition punctuated by increasingly stunning "boss battles." It takes the narrative form of a Miyazaki film in that the beautiful visuals slyly hide that most of the plot is candy-colored nonsense which could easily be boiled down to "good vs evil." Heresy, I know, but there's a reason why Miyazaki films are animated. The visuals are the draw. And in the case of Kubo and the Two Strings I feel the same way - and the visuals are more than enough to justify purchasing a ticket.
Yet with a filmography that includes Coraline and ParaNorman, two films with richly satisfying themes, Kubo feels less like its own movie than a Laika portfolio entry. I sincerely hope they continue to develop their incredible technical skills, and hopefully see fit to apply it to more engrossing material. The Laika team is skilled enough to give Pixar a run for its money if they can find a way to align material with technique. The visuals are so impressive, in fact, that it was a relief to see some behind the scenes footage of the stop-motion puppetry played over the credits. Without this, I'd have felt cheated; felt sure that this was a purely CG-rendered film which merely apes the stop-motion style.
The plot and visual aesthetics are heavily steeped in Shinto mysticism, so much so that I'm stunned that no one has accused the largely white voice cast of cultural appropriation. Not that it would be a valid criticism, given that the filmmakers have a clear reverence for the culture being drawn upon, but in a time when even the enjoyment of foreign cuisine is under attack from the blogosphere, I am happy to report no pushback from the critical powers that be. In fact, the critical world seems to really be in love with Kubo, and while it's not necessarily my cup of tea, its a film to root for. Laika is a company to root for. As I said before, the craft alone is enough to warrant my adoration and money, I just want to see it applied to something that puts my heart on the same elevated plane as it puts my eyes.
Kubo and The Two Strings opens today in Philly area theaters.