“Kubo and the Two Strings” Review: Laika Magic

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Kubo and the Two Strings was the first movie I watched from Laika Entertainment, and now I feel like I was really missing out on the visual splendor that they’re now renowned with films like Coraline and ParaNorman. While at times Kubo could feel like it was moving a little too fast, or getting a little too bogged-down with exposition and monologues, it compensates with a wonderful Japanese folklore setting and storybook-esque visuals.

The titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy with one eye living in a fairy tale version of feudal Japan. He lives in a cave outside a small village, caring for his sick mother (Charlize Theron) and practicing origami magic with his sanshin, a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument. She regales him with stories of the legendary samurai, and his deceased father, Hanzo. One night, a vengeful spirit from his and his mother’s past finds him, and Kubo is whisked away to find three magical pieces of armor that will save and protect him.

Like I said, I’d never seen a movie by Laika before Kubo  not because I had anything against the studio, which is almost single-handedly keeping stop-motion animation alive in the modern era – but their previous films Coraline and ParaNorman seemed too broody, angsty and Burton-esque than I liked. Which was too bad because I generally heard good, or even great, things about those movies. The Boxtrolls I just had no interest in seeing. But now, having seen Kubo, I feel more compelled to watch those movies, if only to see more of the breath-taking visuals a talented team dedicated to the art of stop-motion can bring to life on-screen.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful Kubo looks, both in motion and as a series of still images. Nearly every scene and important shot is composed for maximum visual appeal, with colors that evoke a painting and framing that makes Kubo feel like a lovingly-illustrated story book. The gentle, unobtrusive “realness” of the stop-motion animation and models plays to the fairy tale and folklore feeling of the film, and while the characters and places are not truly “real”, they have more than enough physicality to have an emotional impact when they move and express themselves. Yet they are just not “real” enough to allow the magic of the setting and medium to give the film an imaginative, almost innocent feeling. The giant trees surrounding a small shrine look exactly how I would imagine them in my mind if they were described to me in a folk tale, as does the images of dancing origami figures or a strumming of the sanshin cutting a giant wave in two. I suppose the loving rendering of each shot can be attributed to the limitations of the stop-motion style, which demands still and steady camera placement and movement. The camera can’t move too fast or do anything too fancy because the movie is literally being made frame by frame. So Laika has ample opportunity – perhaps an obligation – to ensure that every shot looks great, that the characters are places just so and that every other element be in the perfect position for the moment.

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The story and characters of Kubo are classic, maybe even archetypical. I wouldn’t call any of the situations or characters particularly deep or complex, but they didn’t need to be for this movie. Unlike most other applications of Joseph Campbell‘s “Hero’s Journey” monomyth, Kubo’s journey doesn’t feel like it was lazily applied for the sake of modern audiences. Kubo sets itself up as a classical fairy tale, which is the place to apply the “Hero’s Journey” if there ever was a place. Kubo lived an idyllic life from which he was forced to leave and go on a quest to find power outside of his home, with supernatural help. But just when he finds himself at his lowest, he’s aided one last time to fight the evil and claim his life back. Done. It’s complicated, but it fits this particular tale.

Of course, there are weaknesses to such a familiar set up. There are parts of Kubo that allude to some revelation later on in the story, none of which were particularly surprising or unpredictable. There were many times where I thought Laika might try to subvert expectations or do something different, but those moments never happened; even the admittedly refreshing motivation of the film’s antagonist felt like a case of “We’re not so different, you and I!” And despite adhering so closely to an established structure, Kubo felt a little padded in the beginning, occasionally suffering from unnecessarily-prolonged scenes.

One of the first things about Kubo that grasped my attention when I saw the trailers for it, was the Japanese folklore angle that it was coming from. I was intrigued by the idea about a stop-motion telling of an old Japanese tale, especially for a Western audience. Unfortunately, Kubo is not based on any particular folk tale, and Kubo does not feel distinctly Japanese. It might look Japanese with the setting, costumes and names. But there was nothing about the movie that felt like it was specifically Japanese, in terms of both dialogue and narrative. Obviously, Kubo has an English-speaking voice cast, but I was hoping that the structure of the speech or word choice would feel more “feudal” and “Japanese.” But no, the characters talk like a modern people and crack jokes like modern people. I believe the only word ever said that could even be called Japanese was “samurai.” It felt like a detriment and disservice to the setting and rich culture behind it, and frequently ruined my immersion in it. The themes and ideas at play also didn’t feel specifically Japanese – I don’t mean that in some “All Japanese people talk and act this way” kind of deal – what I mean is that I expected more Eastern spirituality and animism to be at play, though I suppose that wouldn’t have played well with general audiences.

Kubo and the Two Strings was a good enough film, with enough heart in its story and enough love in its particular medium, that it convinced that I really should give Laika’s other films a shot. It’s a classical tale with an interesting setting that is sure to delight the eyes, and possibly the soul.

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