Kubo and the Two Strings is an obscenely beautiful technical masterpiece, and may be the most incredible achievement yet in stop motion animation. While there’s obviously a layer of digital assistance rounding out the magic of Laika’s lively physical figures, the blend is wonderfully seamless. But that’s not all, because Kubo also boasts the best story yet of Laika’s impressive filmography.
Kubo is about legacy – how it is shaped not only by our actions and values but through our families and the stories we leave behind. These themes are bolstered not just by a (mostly) exceptional cast, but some of the better moments of exposition yet to hit a film. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is an amazing story-teller. Even if he weren’t able to magically animate the subjects of his tale with origami, he’d still make a rare musical street performer I would actually stop for.
Speaking of music, the film’s soundtrack is phenomenal. It feels culturally appropriate without ever feeling trite, derivative, or awkwardly old-fashioned. It evokes all the excitement of a modern adventure, but with accents and flairs that feel as unique as the story it supports. And holy jeebers is that shamisen-performed cover of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ an incredible epilogue to the tale.
For being filmed on a tiny soundstage, Kubo‘s world feels impressively vast. Despite a large portion of the film taking place in the wilds, the world depicted feels well populated and its culture well established. Ancillary characters in the town where Kubo lives have well fleshed out personalities and all feel integral to their community. This goes a long way towards breathing life into the adventure that follows, providing a tangible alternative to the dark forces that Kubo stands against.
As for the major players, Charlize Theron is a great supportive player, lending an odd blend of coldness and warmth to the amusing “straight man” of the film, Monkey. Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara turn in delightfully creepy performances as Kubo’s sinister Grandfather and twin Aunties. The only voice that seems out of place is Matthew McConaughey as Beetle. It’s not that his performance is bad. McConaughey is a fine actor and he captures a lot of Beetle’s charm. But his laid back southern disposition doesn’t really mesh with the Japanese culture or characters around him. His performance also doesn’t mesh with some the deeper facets of his well-conceptualized character, and some of Beetle’s awkwardly jokey lines land with a clunk.
The only other issues seem to be Laika’s sole Achilles heel… pacing. If there’s really anything that can be held against this magical adventure, it’s that its sometimes predictable mysteries jumble the drive of the narrative. The film’s reliance on big reveals saps some of the dramatic “oomph” from its otherwise lovely moments, while others feel rushed.
While there is some room for improvement, Kubo and the Two Strings is still an exceptional film that’s never afraid to pull its punches to tell a meaningful story. In addition to visual splendor, technical prowess, and its deeply human story, it represents Laika’s finest effort to date, and comes very highly recommended.
3D Recommendation – Kubo’s carefully orchestrated native 3D is a wonder, not only technically or in its well-suited material, but in its great use of its 3D space, fore and aft of the screen plane. The only problem I noticed were some points where the 3D gave away forced perspective tricks the animators were using for items in the foreground.