I find myself troubled by “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the latest offering from stop-motion animation company Laika. There’s so much right with the film, so many delights and emotional moments, and yet I am underwhelmed by it. It’s like listening to a cover of a great song played expertly by a great band but feeling it resonate the way it should. I racked my brain, and I think I know why. To start, we have to look at 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 (Japanese lute). He tells musical stories accompanied by origami figures, which Kubo magically brings to life with his musical instrument. One night, while visiting a 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), who are 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 now wants the other for mysterious purposes. After the confrontation, 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. She magically transforms 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), a once great samurai warrior who has been cursed and transformed into a giant anthropomorphic beetle with no recollection of his past life.
Why did I begin this review with such a lengthy synopsis of the film’s story? Because at its core, the film is about storytelling and believes in its importance above all else. This makes it all the more ironic 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. “Kubo” circuitously proves this point, demonstrating that without a strong narrative framework and compelling execution of that narrative, a film will falter despite its other virtues. It’s the skeleton upon which the body of the film relies for structure and support.
I’ve written before that I don’t find story necessary to a film’s artistic success. Plenty of great films have incoherent, poorly told or just plain non-existent stories. 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 film does have 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 toward the visuals, which make the movie a marvel all on their own.
Laika is probably the last major purveyor of stop-motion animation, and its skill with the technique —demonstrated in past films like “Coraline,” “The Boxtrolls” and “ParaNorman” — is unmatched. The animators 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 goes above and beyond to wow us. Stop-motion, when done well, has a intimate, hand-made quality. It’s all the more impressive when you know how painstaking and time consuming it is to get just one second of footage. But the creative team also seamlessly blends in VFX technology, giving the film a grand scale and scope, making the world large and 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 fails to provide a holistically satisfying experience.
In the lead-up to seeing the film, I read and watched several interviews and behind-the-scenes videos on the film’s creation. What is emphasized the most by the creative team is the innovations Laika has made, the use of new 3D printing technology to allow for greater, subtler expressiveness in the puppet’s faces, utilizing green screen technology and creating the world’s largest ever stop-motion figure 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 craft a satisfying, genuinely moving film. It’s enough to dazzle, sure, but not enough to really get in my head and bring me an unforgettable experience. If Laika had spent more time on the script, I might have walked away more impressed. I might have even called it a great film.
I concede that I may be missing something. Early in the film, Kubo twice tells his inside-the-film audience — and implicitly, his outside-the-film audience — 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 giving too much attention to the wrong thing, and so Kubo (or rather, “Kubo”) failed in his/its quest to enthrall. Perhaps I overlooked the story Laika was really trying to tell. I hope to see it again, to maybe discover that story. But as it stands, I can’t get over how rushed the film feels, how much it seems like a first draft. Maybe the film just isn’t as profound as Laika and the film’s fans seem to think.