‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ wears its influence on its sleeve to spin a tale neither completely derivative nor wholly original
Kubo and the Two Strings director (and Laika CEO) Travis Knight has said the film takes equally from Miyazaki and Kurosawa, two of his favorite directors. It’s disappointing, first and foremost, that Knight does not seem able to capture the same magic as Princess Mononoke or the epic scale of Seven Samurai. Japanese filmmaking influence is felt throughout the 100 minutes Kubo runs, but the product is as American as they come. Exciting, well-intentioned, and ultimately straightforward to a fault.
The film begins with the narrator, Kubo (Art Parkinson) telling the audience “if you must blink, do it now.” It is a commanding opening which sets up the narrative and meta narrative. Kubo is a storyteller within a story, bringing origami to life with his shamisen and weaving his life story into his fantasies. His father was a Samurai warrior who died protecting Kubo and his mother, who now suffers from an unpredictable form of amnesia, her memories fading in and out at whim.
It is a starkly dark premise. That somber feeling permeates the entirety of the film, and strives to be brutal in the style of Miyazaki’s best. Kubo succeeds on this level of homage, the first interactions between Kubo and his mother being particularly heartbreaking. A later graveyard sequence finds Kubo unable to connect to the spirit of his father. The scene turns dark when his aunt witches come to take him in one of the few scenes that blends urgent action with the dark forces of evil. But the film is often at one end of the spectrum, stuck between adventurous action and somber family drama.
The latter two thirds introduce Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). The anthropomorphic heroes lead Kubo on his quest to find the three magical items he needs to, you know, defeat the bad guy. The film is almost well served by the mystery behind these characters, but the main quest is so transparent that everything falls into place in your head long before the film intends. Be grateful, then, that Theron and McConaughey both give inspired performances. Between Beetle’s lighthearted demeanor, Monkey’s overprotectiveness, and Kubo’s general knack for tomfoolery, this troupe will keep you entertained.
Unfortunately, it is the humor that betrays Kubo’s influence. The jokes are so deeply and unapologetically American it hurts. To say kids won’t laugh is perhaps too harsh, but Beetle is often pulling out quips amongst battle that have all been heard before. It rounds out his character, but in a way sets him apart. He does not seem to fit in the same world as everyone else.
Kubo and The Two Strings’ greatest achievement comes from the animation work. Laika Studios has been refining their stop-motion look since 2009’s Coraline and Kubo is clearly the result of nearly a decade of hard work. The style is eternally gorgeous, a reason in itself to drop everything and see this movie. The mix of stop-motion and CGI on display is seamless. Without the overwhelming attention to detail in every character and environment it would truly be difficult to say whether Kubo would be worth the watch. Luckily, not even the basic derivative nature of the story gets in the way of the gorgeous visuals that vary — yet stay consistent in style and tone — throughout this adventure.
Kubo and The Two Strings will be in theaters starting on August 19th.