There is a current complaint in the world that Hollywood has lost its creativity. With IP’s, Princesses, and Superheroes alike ruling the box office, the original film – not based on anything aside from culture and storytelling itself – has been lost to the masses. But with the latest stop-motion animated adventure from LAIKA, titled Kubo and the Two Strings, that thirst for pure imagination has been quenched.
The film tells the story of 11-year old Kubo (Art Parkinson), a brave boy with a missing eye, who lives with his mother in the high mountains of feudal Japan. Kubo is unlike the other children in his village, for he (like his mother) has magical abilities that allow him to do incredible things – which makes his Grandfather (Ralph Fiennes) and Aunts (Rooney Mara) his mortal enemies. This conflict sets Kubo on a grand quest, with the help of a talking Monkey (Charlize Theron), and Beetle-Looking Samurai (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo must find three enchanted objects that’ll help him defeat his evil extended family, while saving his home and himself.
With a plot that sounds straight out of your favorite Saturday morning cartoon, it would be easy to dismiss this film as one to save for a home viewing. But Kubo is more than just the kiddy approved jokes and catch phrase filled movies of the summer – it is an experience that most viewers (likely) won’t be ready for. The best example of this comes from the main villain of the piece, who wants to remove our protagonist’s eyes – not to cause any sort of pain, but for a reason that will likely divide audiences to whether this antagonist is truly a threat. In my mind, he is a great manifestation of the denialism going on in the world today. And that example is only but a tiny dash on this film’s list of impressive qualities.
Steeped in deep mythology from both Japan and Joseph Campbell alike, the team at LAIKA presents a movie that is equally as beautiful as it is complex. This is deep, rich storytelling, the kind that little kids need a dose of on occasion. If you took the fable aspects of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal and mixed the visually striking appeal of Studio Ghibli’s films, you’d then begin to grasp the kind of movie Kubo is.
That isn’t to say that this doesn’t have some humor in it, for the voice acting performances of talents like Theron and McConaughey bring an equal amount of comedic flair and true humility when the story is at its most frightening. And when the audience is introduced to Kubo’s evil aunties known as “The Sisters” – twins who seem to come straight from The Shining – you definitely need something light to balance the dark. And unlike Coraline, which at times seemed almost too dark and spooky for kids to digest, Kubo knows just when to throw in the spoonful of sugar and not over-sweeten the end result.
But much like any great tale, there are some gaps – mostly due to the development of some character’s leaving a bit to be desired. Likely you, as the audience, will grow to love certain individuals, wanting more screen time with them once things are revealed about their backstory. But sadly, Kubo does not allow such storytelling wishes to be granted. A similar case would be with Jean Cocteu’s Beauty and the Beast, where audiences fell in love with The Beast – wanting more time with him – and when he was turned into the Prince, they were ultimately disappointed. These decisions are but a blip of an issue in an otherwise flawless movie, but if I could wave a cinematic magic wand over the film, I’d love to spend more time with these characters.
Implementing new techniques with every film they create, Kubo also stands as LAIKA’s most ambitious film in terms of its execution. Through their work on films such as The BoxTrolls and ParaNorman, you would think that this team of incredible artists had done it all – but then Kubo proves that statement completely incorrect. Some shots will leave you breathless, especially those of the opening sequence – to which you will likely ask “How did they do that?!” And even though a scene during the end credits will explain one of those jaw dropping images, I almost don’t want to know the answers, just so the magic isn’t taken from the “trick” before our eyes.
At the end of the day, DC and Marvel Studios may offer entertainment, but nothing that comes from those two houses, or any studio this year, compares to the complete majestic craftsmanship that is this literal handmade creation. Kubo is a beautiful example of what original filmmaking in Hollywood can still do, if given the chance. It can take us to new, unforgettable worlds, and teach lessons that children and parents alike need to be reminded of. It can allow those who are unknown artists the chance to show their skills, and invent new techniques of bringing their creations to life. And most importantly, it can inspire future generations of artists to take risks with their work – especially in film – and believe they themselves, much like Kubo himself, can achieve greatness.