I went into Kubo and the Two Strings knowing nothing more than that it was the newest film by the amazing Laika studios and that it was set in ancient Japan. It’s rare that I get a chance to enter into a film with that much potential behind it basically blind so I was certainly excited. Even the crowd of children in the theater didn’t dissuade me since Laika’s films are generally for kids, even if they aren’t the best movie theater companions.
The film tells the story of a one eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who lives in a cave with his near comatose mother who brought him there as a baby. Kubo goes regularly into the nearby town to tell stories with his samisen (a three stringed Japanese guitar of sorts) through which he magically animates origami to illustrate his tales and earned some gold to live on. One night he stays out longer than he should in hopes of communing with his deceased father, but instead ends up being discovered by old foes that have been searching for him leading to his mother’s death and the start of his journey to hunt down ancient magical armor his father once sought. With his companions Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) they must seek out this armor while still hunted by supernatural beings that can track him each night he is out in the open.
Let’s start with the easiest thing to talk about which is how downright gorgeous the animation Laika creates really is. From the individual characters (most notably to me being Monkey and her individual tufts of fur that move) to the gorgeous landscapes that feel alive you will immediately be struck by how good it looks. There is one particular fight for the first part of the armor that features a large monster that seems like it would be impossible to make in Claymation only for them to show you it and its rigging in the end credits, displaying the astounding work their animation team really does. There are times that you will question if it is purely CGI because it looks so cleanly done and that is the real art of the movie. Also of note is the end credits are also animated in a 2D style that is just as beautiful as the Claymation that you watched throughout the film. Laika have long been the masters of Claymation and they prove here that they have only gotten better with time.
The weakest part would unfortunately be the story which is really just fairly standard overall. It’s not a bad story in any regard really; just it doesn’t have really any twists and turns to it either. Overall it is told well and does what is needed for a kid’s movie, and with the films relatively short 100 minute run time it is short enough that you don’t get too long to notice this. I will say that I feel the final fight and the resolution felt the weakest to me though. The fight itself felt less dynamic and engaging than those that preceded it to me and the resolution, while very nice and happy also felt like it further took away from that last fight as well as the quest, but that may just be me. I will say the movie did win me back by not shying away from death or being at times scary or dipping its toe in dark imagery. When I was a kid most movies I watched were like The Rescuers which included terrifying people inflicting child abuse and child slavery, so I always appreciate when movies today that are even kind of made for kids don’t just go for the soft touch to shelter them. Overall this balanced the film out more for me and really helped the narrative.
Thankfully, that story is also told and broken up through characters that both engage you dramatically as well as will make you laugh consistently. Parkinson does a good job as Kubo who is our focus in the story and holds your interest and feels very human. However, I also have to say that he does fall victim to being not too broad of a character which is good for kids to put themselves in his place, but not always for the story. Theron as Monkey was entertaining as trying to be stern and hard but also being a good straight-man for the comedy at times as well as cracking jokes of her own. She played especially well off McConaughey’s Beetle who is the heart of the comedy here as he is boisterous and self-assured but also not all there or all that bright and easily will be many people’s favorite character. I’d also be remiss to not mention our main villains of Rooney Mara as The Sisters, a haunting pair of supernatural twins behind stoic geisha masks who hunt our heroes down and amp up the spookiness factor. Also our main villain, who we really don’t see much of until the 3rd act, Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King does a good job as the heartless interstellar ruler who wants Kubo at any cost and is blind to the joy of life on Earth and of mortality. The core cast here really brings the tale to life and helps you overlook the weaker narrative they are telling.
Laika continues to show why they are the masters of Claymation and why they are one of my favorite studios out there. This film is especially good for fans of Japanese history and folklore as well as just those that want a fun and stylish adventure. I highly recommend you check it out and bring your kids too so they can experience it with you!