Cinema-Maniac: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

If you enjoy watching animation of any kind you’ll eventually come across a debate of people arguing what’s most important in animation. Typically you’ll have one person saying that writing is more important than animation, and another person saying animation is more important. A common debate I ignore simply for the fact that storytelling is a balancing act of both writing, and visuals. Undermining the importance of either by placing greater importance on one trait is something I go against. For me, it’s typically about the execution itself more so than the individual parts. There might be weaknesses in the creation of any media, but by the end of it how well it was done matters more to me. Today’s movie is undoubtedly a case of style over substance offering nothing new in its storytelling, but still provides something worth checking out, in particular its animation.

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Sit down boy for I have a story as old as me.

Kubo and the Two Strings follows the title character, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past. Fantasy anything love to use the classic trope of collecting three of mystical items during your journey to vanquish great evil. This is set up through a fictional story that Kubo tells the towns folk pretty early on in the movie. Not deviating from that path for part of it detriment. Creating the biggest issue of predictability. Unfortunately Kubo’s mother is to blame for this mcguffin sharing her story with Kubo, and in turn the movie dedicating an entire sequence to showing the audience what happens on the eventual journey Kubo takes.

The story told here doesn’t offer anything new, and still acts like it does. There’s a obvious plot twist regarding the true identity of two other characters who join Kubo on his journey. This plot twist wouldn’t be so predictable to see coming if the film actually bother having more important characters to throw you off. I would have personally just made the mystical charm protector Monkey (Charlize Theron) protector, and a amnesiac samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) be different characters instead of what the movie actually did. Something else the movie does in raging success is removing any sense of adventure. Everything just feels like it all falls into place for Kubo, and due to the quick pacing there’s no sense of accomplishment garner from the journey.

Another disservice that comes with staying within the story path is alluding to more complex ideas, but keeping them simplistic. The backstory behind how Kubo parents met implies Kubo is hiding from a much greater role that his mother didn’t tell him about. However, instead delving into the details of what that could be the movie just moves on. It does this for a number of things choosing to entertain a younger audience without trusting them to handle something complex. None of this is better exemplify than the false threat that are referred to as the Sisters; who are basically supernatural like entity related to Kubo mother who goals are to kill the mother, and take Kubo. Aside from the obligatory first, and final encounter with Kubo group the Sisters are non threatening. If the Sisters were human it would be reasonable why they are always behind Kubo, and his group, but dedicating dialogue to bluntly tell the audience they don’t need to sleep, or eat brings it up the forefront of how lacking in stakes the film has overall.

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Even against a giant skeleton, no there’s no feeling of stakes.

What suffers the most from the overly simplistic writing is the villain motivation being all over the place. It’s revealed early on that the villain wants Kubo eye, but for what exactly is left unanswered. Covering the lack of sensible motivation under an idealistic fight of embracing emotions, or detaching oneself from it. The last thing I would criticize is something crucial to the movie, and that is the lack of conflict between the characters. Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle get along just fine with little arguments between each other. Without much of a conflict to overcome from each other while working together there’s no sense that the group learned to cooperate together. So when the eventual reveal of Beetle, and Monkey identities happen it doesn’t feel like the group is united through organic means.

You’ll see every plot point coming before it happens, but the good thing are the characters at fleshed out. They never become engaging characters because the movie tells you their fates ahead of time. Leaving no room to fear for their life. Everything else surrounding these characters is interesting, especially their past. While I complained about the structure of the story there’s the compliment everything played out naturally, and was foreshadowed properly. No resolution in the movie feels convoluted because of it. Another good choice in the writing was to not take itself too seriously. Understanding this kind story has been done to death it does it best to be fun before it eventually has to get serious towards the climax. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything it tackles in the story. Never reaching the poignant stage it wants everything that should function in the story works like it should.

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Look at that animation. So smooth!

Easily the best part of Kubo and the Two Strings is the stop motion animation done by Laika studio. Everything is nicely detailed, and moved very smoothly. My favorite moment in the movie is easily the scene where Kubo uses origami paper to tell a story to the town folk. The origami paper is able to shift into different complex shapes leading to impressive visuals. You’ll both awed by how visually creative it is, and be wondering how did Laika studio pull it off. Being in doubt inspired by Eastern culture you’ll see certain designs in buildings, and clothing that are distinctively Japanese. With the story granting Laika the opportunity to create a number of different landscapes they take full advantage of it. They don’t forget the small details either like animating Monkey fur blow in the wind in several scenes.

The best sequence that shows off Laika animation talent is a sequence that takes place in a cave. Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle basically fight against a giant walking skeleton while looking for a sword. This sequence is quite daunting to imagine animating because the skeleton is larger with bigger body pieces, and almost all of them have to be moved individually to look smoothly animated. Not to forget having to animate the actual smaller characters while the giant skeleton is moving. Once there’s dozen of smaller pieces crumbling from the ceiling does the sight of several dozen moving pieces make you realize what a nightmare it must have been to do all this with stop motion animation, and impressive feat the sequence it was accomplished. There’s also another brief sequence where Kubo uses origami papers to make dozen of paper birds fly. While smaller in scale it’s still feast for the eyes. Of course, can’t for forget about the surprisingly good lighting in the movie, and even using shadowing effects to properly get it right. Putting plenty of efforts in the animation it makes a predictable story at least visually interesting.

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The origami animation in this movie is terrific. 

The voice has a good cast with the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, George Takei (in a bit role), and Ralph Fiennes being the big names of the cast. Each of them do a good job in their roles, though the number of big names is more impressive than their actual performances. Charlize Theron is the caring mother, Matthew McConaughey is the comedic relief, Rooney Mara is adversary, and Ralph Fiennes the imposing villain. From this list Theron comes out the best creating very sympathetic character. When she says something caring she feel genuine in expressing that through her line delivery.

Art Parkinson who plays the title character of Kubo I would give the biggest round of applause too. Being the youngest in the cast (14 around the time of the movie release) he handles himself well in the role like he’s been voice acting his whole life. He hits all the right notes every time regardless of the scene he’s. Finding the right balance of portraying his young character without ever making Kubo come off as pouty, annoying, or a too much of a cry baby. Parkinson best moments comes when he’s alone expressing the lost he feels in certain scenes. If he decides to, Art Parkinson can have a great career in voice acting.

Kubo, and the Two Strings is a standard movie elevated by stellar animation. You might have seen the story a dozen time, but never quite through the visual flourish provided by Laika stop motion animation. There’s not much to look into on the story front, but on a technical level there’s a lot admire.

Rating: 7/10

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