It’s possible to adore the craftsmanship of Kubo and the Two Strings, with its fully realized Asian-mythology-ish world and unprecedented smoothness for stop-motion, while still feeling it’s the least of Portland-based animation studio Laika‘s four films. This isn’t so much damning with faint praise (Kubo deserves no damnation of any kind), but rather, a statement that Laika generally raises the bar so high above what we expect from most kid-centric American animation that at a certain point, it takes super powers to leap above it in a single bound.
So while the movie is a visual feast, just as you’d expect, its story is nonetheless fairly predictable fantasy-quest fare, with a sentimental slant on the importance of family that would fit perfectly into any Disney equivalent. That sentiment is certainly honest—director Travis Knight singles out all his family members by name at the end of the credits for a heartfelt dedication—but it lacks any leavening with, say, the quirky humor of The Boxtrolls, the strangeness of Coraline, or the downright scariness of ParaNorman‘s climax. There is comic relief in the form of Matthew McConaughey being incongruously McConaughey-like for a samurai story, but it’s now clearer than ever why Knight, in interviews, has always tried to emphasize that Laika thinks of every movie they do as very different: he wanted to be able to tell a much simpler, more straightforward fairy tale without the baggage of having to compete with a Neil Gaiman-penned precedent from his own studio.
Kubo (Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy with one eye, lives in a cave with his brain-damaged mother, who sustained a nasty head injury escaping from her father, the heartless Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), and has never been the same since. Magic runs in their blood, amplified by their shamisen (a stringed instrument akin to a banjo), that when played by Kubo can bring inanimate objects to life. Their primary source of income is from the street shows he performs in the village below their mountain, as he psycho-kinetically manipulates origami creatures and warriors to tell the story of his late father, a great samurai named Hanso. That Kubo is essentially an animator is an autobiographical element for Knight; that the one-eyed boy must have no depth perception and yet is animating 3D models invites further analysis, though the most obvious reading is simply that the odds are stacked more heavily against him than they appear.
To avoid the Moon King, Kubo and his mother must stay inside at night, but boys being boys, Kubo is tempted into disobedience—with deadly consequences. Now on the run, hunted by both the grandfather who took out his first eye, and his evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara) who practice Crouching Tiger gravity-free kung fu, he must search for his father’s magical armor, helmet, and sword. Protecting him along the way are Monkey (Charlize Theron), a spirit brought to life from a totem by his mother’s magic; and Beetle (McConaughey), a man-bug of little brain in samurai armor who (perhaps dubiously) claims to have served in Hanso’s army. Crossing many impressive landscapes, they fight giant monsters and conjure spells in what sometimes feels like your favorite RPG come to life.
At key moments, Kubo even goes for some full-on martial-arts fights, which is a bold gambit in animation; no matter how well the choreography’s done (and it has also been pulled off well in the likes of Ninja Scroll and TMNT), the true special effect of any martial-arts battle is the fact that actual humans are doing it. When our brains subconsciously know that a puppet, drawing, or rendering can be made to strike any pose with ease, the “physicality” will never be as impressive. Though it can be cool, and is.
The meaning of the title is a gigantic spoiler, which makes it an odd naming choice; suffice it to say it’s related to both family and animation, as you’d probably have guessed. It’s arguable that in a world so lovingly rendered in such complicated and detailed fashion, a simplified story is needed to allow you to take in the rest. And that would be a fair point, except that Laika themselves, run by Knight as their CEO, have proven it needn’t be so. The aspects of the script that involve genealogy from the moon also recall The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which sets up further and unfortunately steep points of comparison. About the casting, and possible “whitewashing” accusations, I will only note that the voices involved include George Takei and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, who evidently approve.
In a summer that has yielded many disappointments, and movies beset by apparent editing and studio interference issues, a clean narrative in a world full of seamless special effects and original design should not be taken for granted. Kubo does what it does well—only when compared to what its producers also do is it ever wanting.
It nonetheless merits four burritos. So I suppose I should quit whining that I wanted it to be five.
Images: Laika/Focus Features
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor and a member of the L.A. Film Critics Association, and has hair that is an uncontrollable stop-motion effect.