Starring: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones), Ralph Fiennes (Hail, Caesar!), George Takei (Star Trek), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar)
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (ParaNorman)
Runtime: 1 hour 41 minutes
Release Date: 19 August (US), 9 September (UK)
In the wonderful landscape of animated movies we live in now, Laika is a company that is getting constantly overlooked. All of their movies so far (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) have been wonderfully imaginative and beautifully crafted, bringing a much needed darker vision to a genre that generally plays it safe, but nowhere near enough people actually bother to see them. Maybe it’s because they’re so aesthetically different or they don’t have the brand recognition of a Disney or a DreamWorks, but whatever the reason Laika has yet to have a big smash success. Kubo and the Two Strings is their latest effort and certainly their most ambitious film so far, and whilst I again worry the general audience will look over it, those who do see should find that it’s probably their best and most accessible movie to date.
Kubo follows a very traditional hero’s journey plotline with our young hero sent off on a quest with his quirky companions to collect three magic MacGuffins to fight off the big evil guy at the end, but not only is it a well-told version of that classic tale it is one embellished with wonderful details and themes. Similar to the Kung Fu Panda series and Avatar: The Last Airbender, the film doubles as a wonderful lesson in Eastern folklore and philosophy that’s understandable for children, using those as a great backbone for its messages about family, storytelling and loss. The story for the most part is fairly predictable with twists that older audiences should see coming, but the third act culminates in an unexpected and emotional way that eschews the traditional action climax for something more fitting of the film’s themes. What ultimately keeps Kubo moving along at such a breezy pace is its subdued but charming sense of humour and its warm heart. There is never a moment where the pacing drags, the jokes aren’t gut-busting but they add a lot of charm, and every key emotional beat hits home every time. It’s certainly the closest Laika has every come to making a traditional family movie, but all of their trademarks are still there and that element of darkness only makes those bright spots feel more earned.
The cast of Kubo is pretty small, but that only allows for more time to focus on our main players. Kubo himself is probably the least interesting character of the bunch, but he’s still a likable presence with a cheeky sense of humour and Art Parkinson really sells the earnestness of the character. The real main attractions of the picture are Charlize Theron’s Monkey and Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle, with the two of them together making for an excellent double act. Monkey’s po-faced seriousness and determination is perfectly balanced out by Beetle’s scatterbrained goofiness, but they both have their solemn moments together too and their relationship with Kubo forms the emotional core of the film. Ralph Fiennes has limited screen time as the antagonistic Moon King, his character being talked about far more than actually seen, but he makes for a refreshing villain in a kids’ movie in that his motivations have a certain sense of logic to them. Rooney Mara as his masked twin minions The Sisters serve as the more physical threat, and Mara’s chilling voice perfectly suits this pair of twisted characters that are sure to give some kids nightmares. Combined with some smaller roles from recognisable voices like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and you’ve got yourself a strong cast behind all the magic.
As strong as their stories are, the real wonder of watching a Laika movie is all of the artistry that goes into making it, and Kubo is easily their most complex and beautiful film so far. It becomes incredibly hard to tell at points where the stop-motion ends and the computer animation takes over, with both elements blending perfectly together to create a seamlessly wondrous image. The whole movie is fantastically imaginative in how everything is designed and brought to life from how Kubo brings his origami to life with his guitar to the giant monsters he and his companions have to battle; be sure to stay through the credits for Laika’s usual behind-the-scenes bit that shows off how they accomplished one of the movie’s most spectacular scenes practically. Music plays a key role in the plot of Kubo, so it’s only natural that the film’s music lives up to the visuals. Dario Marianelli’s score is a wonderful blend of traditional Japanese music with a more western orchestral score, all of topped off by Regina Spektor’s beautiful cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; it compliments the movie perfectly and it’s one of the best Beatles covers made for a film since Fiona Apple’s “Across The Universe” from Pleasantville.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a stunning piece of filmmaking from start to finish, telling a simple but appealing story that takes advantage of everything the medium of animation allows. It’s certainly toned down compared to Laika’s previous films, but it retains enough of their unique style to both appeal to a wider audience and still be unequivocally theirs. Whilst the summer blockbusters have fallen, animation in 2016 has remained strong throughout this year and Kubo certainly stands amongst not only the best animated films of the year but with the best films in general so far this year. Don’t let this one pass under the radar like Laika’s previous efforts. Go see it in a movie theatre and support film that not only deserves your money but also desperately needs it.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10