First things first, I absolutely adore animation. In my eyes, it’s the most creative and culturally diverse medium in the film industry today, and if 2016 has proven anything to us, it’s that animated films are on a roll with hits like Zootopia, Finding Dory, Sausage Party and the upcoming Moana. Animation works so well for fictional stories because it’s able to make anything believable. It takes just as much time and money for an animator to draw a man walking down the street as it does for them to draw a dragon fighting a giant octopus. The only limits are the filmmakers’ imaginations.
So now we have Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest project from Laika studios, famous for beautiful stop-motion films such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. Not since Aardman Studios or the animated Tim Burton films have we seen stop-motion done with such skill. By blending classic pose-and-shoot, puppetry, and computer-generated effects, Laika pulls off a style unique to itself which boasts impressive visuals while keeping intact the imperfect, shaky charm of stop-motion.
Without giving too much away, Kubo and the Two Strings follows the story of a young boy named Kubo who lives outside of a small village with his single mother. His father was a great warrior who died protecting him, and his story lives on through Kubo’s performances in the village square. Using a Japanese three string guitar called a shamisen, Kubo brings origami characters to life with magic and recounts the story of his samurai father, Hanzo.
Unfortunately for our hero, two dark figures come looking for him, and he is separated from his mother, embarking on a quest to find his father’s powerful magic armor. It’s a classic hero’s journey, through and through. Along the way he is joined by a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a samurai cursed to be held inside the body of a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). These two characters are a blast, and their relationships with both Kubo and each other bring out the best in their characters. Monkey is a sarcastic, no-nonsense guardian sent to protect Kubo, and while she’s a bit of a hardass, you can see her compassion shine through in later scenes. Meanwhile, Beetle is the best performance I’ve seen out of McConaughey in a long time, mostly due to the fact that his character had actual depth, rather than the usual “Alright, alright, alright” coolness McConaughey usually delivers. Beetle suffers from memory loss due to his curse, which reminded me of The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow; this, paired along with his confident and cocky warrior attitude, makes for some solid comedy.
The story is a pretty by-the-numbers hero’s journey, but the structure works very well for a film like this. Kubo has to travel the lands to find three pieces to complete his father’s armor, and he faces three challenges to obtain each one. While this structure is predictable, it’s incredibly entertaining. For example, when the three heroes enter a cave to obtain the Sword Unbreakable, an enormous skeleton monster appears to destroy them. This monster is so heavily influenced by video game bosses from The Legend of Zelda and Shadow of the Colossus that it breaches plagiarism, with which I would have had more of a problem if I hadn’t just witnessed what was for all intents and purposes a Zelda boss fight in a movie.
My few problems with the story mostly concern some slower scenes that drag, and within these scenes I felt like the film was trying a little too hard to make the audience laugh. Granted, there is some solid comedy and fun banter, but there was certainly the occasional line which failed to land as intended. In addition, there are some small twists which, while interesting and dramatic, ended up muddying a few characterizations.
I’m a sucker for movies about storytelling or the creative process, and this film revolves heavily around that trope while also asking its audience some heavy questions. In my opinion, children are film’s most important audience, and when I see movies that try to pander to younger viewers or treat them without intelligence or respect, it’s infuriating. Movies like Kubo, on the other hand, ask young viewers to consider things like death, memories and their respective meanings. Although in the end Kubo ends up dictating the moral of the movie pretty explicitly, this doesn’t take away from how refreshing it is to see these questions posed in a children’s movie. It asks viewers what’s more important: the truth or how we remember it? Can memories be more powerful than facts? Does death truly end one’s story? The way this film entrenches itself in Japanese culture through its character designs, folklore, music and themes was, as far as I can tell, incredibly respectful and something I wish I saw from more wide releases.
In the end, Kubo and the Two Strings is an absolute pleasure, bringing together stunning animation, engaging and engagement with Japanese culture, a kickass soundtrack including a stellar cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and an adventurous story sprinkled with fun characters, solid vocal performances and surprisingly humbling and melancholy themes. I truly hope that 2016 is the year that proves to audiences that cartoons aren’t just “kid’s stuff.” Definitely give Kubo and the Two Strings your support in the box office so we can get more exciting hits like it from studios like Laika.
Brendan Coyle is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.