Kubo and the Two Strings Review
There are (loose) strings on thee
Despite what preconceived notions one may have about 2016, few would dispute that there were an abundance of quality animated films released. We were given a plethora of varied animated projects that represented just how safe and sure-thing the genre has become: Finding Dory, another instance of Pixar magic and brilliance; Zootopia, a very timely and observant piece of social commentary given the current political climate; Moana, a musical that featured a demographic hardly touched on in films of any ilk; Sausage Party, the wild child that flourished in it’s vulgar and inappropriate R-rated obscenities that cartoons rarely traverse; Sing/The Secret Life of Pets/Kung Fu Panda 3, an unremarkable but satisfying batch that had their own shares of financial success and relevance.
(Side Note: The Secret Life of Pets is seemingly, literally, undeniably, probably a copy of Disney’s Toy Story. Then again, I’m not about to start sympathizing with Disney since they’ve blatantly done the same thing in regards to their own cherished franchises.)
This Sunday, one particularly interesting animated film will be considered at the Oscars — an award show that relishes in it’s snobbery of movies that people actually enjoy—and that movie is Kubo and the Two Strings. Unfortunately, the film was certainly a financial flop (budget of $60 million, box office of $76.3 million) and was lost in the large swath of 2016’s aforementioned animated projects. The question is: Was this the case of under-appreciated genius, or an admittedly ordinary and understandably unsuccessful project?
Kubo and the Two Strings stars the titular hero Kubo (Art Parkinson), a one-eyed young boy gifted with magical powers who resides with his ill mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron). He spends most of his days manipulating origami to tell a tale for the nearby village’s townspeople about the legendary Samurai Hanzo, who is actually Kubo’s missing father. However, after putting on such shows, Kubo always abruptly leaves at nighttime because of his mother’s explicit warnings to not stay out past dark for fear of her Sisters (Rooney Mara) returning to take his remaining eye. One day, much to the dismay of his mother, Kubo is confronted by The Sisters and is forced to escape and embark on an adventure to recover the three lost pieces of golden armor in order to defeat the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). Along the way, Kubo meets Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who serve as his guardians on his quest. And what a quest that is, for better or worse.
What’s most apparent about Kubo and the Two Strings, in breathtaking fashion, is it’s gorgeous art direction and visual flamboyance from top to bottom. Like the paper machete Kubo effortlessly wields, the animation taking place here is both innovative and beautiful. It’s very quote-un-quote Asian, in the sense that the characters and environments have a certain style to them. The opening 20 minutes, especially, feel like the perfect proponent of this, with Kubo commanding a paper samurai to fight various other paper monster incantations — much to the joy of the onlooking villagers. As they gaze upon Kubo’s performance you see their lively expressions, and it feels as though you’ve been transfixed by the performance yourself, almost as if you’re there with them.
It doesn’t end there, though, because the film does make it a point to land Kubo in different settings and environments — each more captivating than the last. From the beginning ocean sequence, to the enthralling snowy landscapes, and to the boat backgrounded by a quaint sunset: The film oozes with artistic exuberance. It feels like it’s something a child drew, and was brought to life with careful attention and detail.
Even in some of it’s more action-focused sequences, of which there are a substantial amount, the film finds ways to capture your attention. One such sequence, where Monkey uses a sword to clash with one of the chain-throwing Sisters, was particularly captivating. Monkey dashes through the air to avoid the lethal chains of the Sister — all taking place during a heavy storm and with a ship slowly being torn apart and an appropriately gloomy moon reigning over them. It’s not so often you get action scenes executed this well in an animated film, but it takes advantage of these instances and gives off some welcome Samurai Jack-esque vibes — or any other samurai sort of film you’ve seen.
Such visual prowess, alone, is distinctive enough to warrant a viewing. But Kubo and the Two Strings does start to falter once you start to look past it’s exterior features and instead glance at it’s interior design of mostly bland characters. Kubo is your typical curiosity-seeking and much-to-learn young lad that you’ve probably seen done before. Aside from his paper-creating skills and lack of one eye, there’s not much to his character’s ark or personality. There are the occasional bright moments, like in one case as he references how happy he is to be indulging in a group meal, since he’s never had such an experience. But it’s not enough, and there isn’t much that changes in his development at the end of the film aside from some mushy-gushy “I discovered myself” sort of fortune-cookie statements.
Almost the same can be said for the other primary characters, Monkey and Beetle. They feel like over-simplifications of the mother and father kind of archetypes. Monkey is a nagging, overprotective and fierce watchdog. Beetle is the clumsy, good-hearted, happy-go-lucky figure. They border on being stereotypical, and transgress through largely boring and dull moments with the occasional moment of exciting. Their most interesting functions come almost entirely from the more action-oriented sequences. The villains themselves — the surprisingly disturbing Sisters and grizzled Moon King—each feel like they have more to offer despite them being simple obstacles for the protagonists to overcome.
It’s not that the voice acting talents are to blame, though. They’re all aptly executed, and McConaughey in particular doesn’t fall into the Alright-Alright-Alright trope one might usually associate with him. But the cast doesn’t feel distinctive, or memorable, rather just the group that happened upon the roles.
Where the characters let down, the story also follows. It’s not an engrossing plot — which is usually not an issue to hold against animated films—or filled with any evolution of ideals; meaning it starts at an interesting place but fails to capitalize. By the 3rd act of the film I found myself clamoring for more. More risk. More gravitas. More something. The characters certainly didn’t add much, so a moving story is what I’d wished for as compensation. It’s not that it’s bad, just painfully ordinary — ordinary because it’s a large step down and pales in comparison to the film’s excellence in the visual department. Maybe it’s a product of my unfair expectations that were based on the film’s unique visual style, that could be it. It’s just a shame that there isn’t much thematically-rich substance to be found here.
As much as I’ve given Kubo and the Two Strings a hard time for playing it safe, it still deserves credit for the things it does right. While it is seemingly an unfortunate case of being superficially executed, there’s nothing here that is particularly awful, just merely decent. It’s decency is a disappointment next to it’s stunning visuals — which results in feelings of mediocrity—but it’s a sufficient enough experience that a younger crowd may find more fulfilling.
+Fun action sequences
-Largely by-the-numbers story
-Dissatisfying story conclusion