I find myself so troubled by Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest from the Laika stop-motion animation company. There’s so much right with the film, so many delights and emotional moments. And yet I feel underwhelmed by it, like listening to a cover of a great song, by a great band, played expertly, but still not feeling that it resonates as strongly as it should. I racked my brain and I think I know what it is. To figure out why, we have to start with the film’s plot.
In medieval Japan, a young boy, Kubo (Art Parkinson), lives in a cave with his mentally ill mother, Sariatu (Charlize Theron), on the outskirts of a small village. By day, Sariatu is catatonic, so Kubo goes to the village with his shamisen, where he tells musically accompanied stories with origami that Kubo magically brings to life with his musical instrument. One night, while visiting the graveyard in an attempt to commune with the spirit of his dead father, a great samurai warrior, Kubo is attacked by his aunts (Rooney Mara), demigods and daughters of the Moon King, like his mother. The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) took Kubo’s left eye when he was a baby and wants his other for mysterious purposes. Sariatu sends Kubo away to safety and tells him to find three pieces of ancient, impenetrable armor so that he can defend himself from the Moon King, but not before magically turning his treasured monkey idol into a real talking monkey – simply referred to as Monkey (also Charlize Theron) – to protect him on his journey. Along the way, the two meet Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), once a great samurai warrior cursed and transformed into a giant anthropomorphic beetle with no recollection of his past life and the adventure begins in earnest.
Why have I begun this review with such a lengthy synopsis of the films story? Because at its core, the film is about storytelling and believes above all in its importance. Which makes it all the more ironic, confusing, and disappointing that the film falters in its narrative and delivery. The film believes that stories and how well they’re told define who we are and what kind of life we lead, and Kubo circuitously proves this point by demonstrating that without a strong narrative framework and compelling execution of that narrative, a film will falter despite its other virtues and strengths. It’s the skeleton upon which the body of the film will rely on for structure and support.
Now, I’ve written before about how I don’t find story necessary to a film’s artistic success. Plenty of films have been made with incoherent, poorly told, or just plain non-existent stories and still manage to be great works of art. But if a film puts such emphasis on its narrative, as Kubo does, then it’s not unfair to criticize the film when it comes up short in its plot execution, as Kubo does. This certainly doesn’t take away from the film’s many other merits however. The voice work is solid, with director Travis Knight managing to get committed performances from his A-list cast. But he really directs his energies towards the visuals, which make the movie a marvel all on their own.
Laika Studios are probably the last major purveyors of stop-motion animation and their skill with the technique is unmatched, demonstrated in past films Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and ParaNorman, and they push themselves even further with Kubo. Granted it’s not hard to create such visual splendor when Feudal Japan is your setting, but Laika still go above and beyond to wow us with their technique. Stop-motion when done well has a lovingly hand-made quality, made all the more impressive and admirable when you know how painstaking and time consuming getting just one second of footage is. But the creative team also seamlessly blends in VFX technology to give the film a grander scale and scope, making their worlds larger and even more eye-popping. The design is so clever and imaginative, and the great Dario Marianelli’s score so lush and stirring, that it almost made me forget that the film doesn’t quite come together as a whole, that it failed to provide me with a satisfying experience.
In my lead up to seeing the film, I read and watched several interviews and behind-the-scenes videos on the films creation, and what is emphasized most by the creative team is the innovations Laika has made; how they’re using new 3-D printing technology to allow for greater, subtler expressiveness in their puppet’s faces, how they utilize green screen, and how the world’s largest ever stop-motion figure was created for one sequence. These are all great accomplishments that Laika should be proud of, but I hear a lot of boasting about all these fancy new toys they’ve created and not much on how they used those tools to craft a satisfying, genuinely moving film. It’s enough to dazzle me, sure, but not enough to really get in my head bring me an unforgettable experience. If Laika had spent more time on their script, I’d have been even more impressed. I might have even called it a great film.
I concede I may be missing something. Early in the film, Kubo tells his audience, and us (twice), to pay close attention, to not look away for a second, for if we do, the hero will surely fail in his quest. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or paying too much attention to the wrong thing, and so Kubo (or rather, Kubo) failed in his quest to enthrall me. Perhaps I overlooked the story Laika was really trying to tell. I hope to see it again to experience that story. But as it stands, I can’t get over how rushed the film is, how much of it feels like a first draft. Or maybe the film isn’t as profound as Laika and the film’s fans seem to think.