Featuring the voices of Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Travis Knight
The stop motion animated adventure Kubo and the Two Strings might not be the best offering from the perpetually underrated Laika animation studios (that distinction still belongs to ParaNorman), but it still boasts more stunning visuals and wild imagination than most any other high concept adventure this summer.
Kubo and the Two Strings marks the directorial debut of animator and Laika CEO Travis Knight and takes kids and adults back to feudal Japan for a story that starts off impressively before settling in to something slightly more formulaic and akin to a Harry Potter tale. That retreat to formula doesn’t come close to killing the fun and wonder, but it’s still hard not to wish that the film could follow up on its initial promise just a tad more.
Young boy Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones’ Rickon Stark, Art Parkinson) had his life saved by his mother as an infant, following a violent incident with his grandfather that left him with only one eye. Kubo provides for his traumatized, nearly catatonic mother by performing impressive feats of music, magic, and origami based performance art for the residents of their village. After failing to heed a warning from his mother to never stay out past dark, his evil, ghoulish twin aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara and hands down the most terrifying characters in any film this year) come looking for the boy to finish the job his grandfather started. This newfound danger forces Kubo to go on the run to retrieve three pieces of a magic suit of armour – a sword, a breastplate, and a helmet – to protect him. It was the suit of armour Kubo’s presumed dead father spent his life trying to find and protect. Along the way, Kubo is assisted by a toy monkey come to life (Charlize Theron) and a half-human-half-beetle hybrid (Matthew McConaughey) with no recollection of his past.
The opening thirty minutes of Kubo and the Two Strings are gripping in ways few films can achieve. It forcefully finds a way to give viewers investment, going as far as saying that if viewer attention spans waver “our hero will surely perish.” It’s a bold statement but Knight and writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler have the skills to back it up. It masterfully outlines the stakes at hand without oversimplifying anything and while establishing Kubo as a child of great intelligence (both worldly and emotionally) and many talents. It’s practically a masterclass in animated storytelling.
Laika has been incapable of creating anything less than visual perfection for quite some time now, and their attention to detail remains unsurpassed. Inspired primarily by folklore, paintings, and origami, the animation team has created a world more dazzling that anything Pixar has come up with in quite some time. That’s not a knock against Pixar, but there’s a difference between recreating modern aquariums, universities, and the untouched landscapes of the prehistoric world and faithfully and painstakingly recreating an entire ancient world literally by hand, and doing it so well that one can’t believe what they’re seeing. Anyone who bemoans the loss of practical effects in Hollywood blockbusters has clearly never seen a Laika film.
Action sequences involving Kubo outrunning the evil sisters as they burn the village to the ground behind him and the monkey engaging in a knock-down-drag-out fight aboard a ship made from leaves and paper in the middle of a storm are two of the best action sequences any viewer will see all year. These scenes are thrilling in ways most live action filmmakers seem scared of approaching. They’re also set to easily the best musical score of the year, courtesy of Dario Marianelli, which deftly blends orchestral stings with the musical background the main character draws a lot of his strength and imagination from.
Backing up the strong visuals and well honed story are great vocal performances from Parkinson and Theron. They make for a formidable team, and Kubo’s back and forth with the stern, paranoid, badass monkey carries a great deal of the film. Mara’s work as the witch-like apparitions outdoes the work put in by Ralph Fiennes as the film’s main villain, the scheming, nefarious Moon King. While Fiennes does frightening perfectly well, Mara’s work and the design of her characters is the stuff kids’ nightmares are made of. If there’s a weak link in the voice cast, it’s McConaughey, but he’s not so much weak as he is inconsistent. Whenever Beetle is acting a bit of a goof, McConaughey nails it, but in the heroic moments for the character, something gets lost or confused.
Around the time McConaughey’s Beetle comes into the picture, Kubo and the Two Strings settles into a narrative groove that works for the film, but isn’t terribly original. It’s another story about a young man with magical powers chasing after McGuffins while learning the dark secrets behind his birthright. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the backdrop for almost half of all young adult fiction. Kids will still get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but considering how dazzling the rest of the film is the second and third acts of the film seem oddly restrained. It’s not that Laika holds anything back, but it’s the first film from the studio that feels like it could have been written from outside the company.
Overall, though, that’s a very small nitpick for a film this lovingly crafted, especially since following a somewhat obvious twist, there are still two other neat twists piled on top of it (one of which cleverly explains exactly what the titular “two strings” are) heading into the climax. It still works wonders on the viewer, and hopefully Kubo and the Two Strings’ slight retreat to formula is just enough to give Laika their first bonafide blockbuster.
Kubo and the Two Strings opens in theatres across North America on Friday, August 19, 2016.
Check out the trailer for Kubo and the Two Strings:
And as a bonus, check out this behind the scenes look at the film’s stunning visual effects:
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