The Anticipated: Kubo and the Two Strings

In All, Movies by David

Although things are still a bit behind, The Anticipated is getting back on track. This has proven to be quite the year for so-called “kids movies,” whether that’s Zootopia or Finding Dory or even Pete’s Dragon (all of which makes the release of the anti-kids animated film Sausage Party this year kind of fitting). Now we have another film to add to this discussion with Kubo and the Two Strings. After the disappointment of The Boxtrolls (absurdly undeserved Oscar nomination and all) compared to the quality of some Laika’s past offerings (Coraline and ParaNorman), this film has a lot to live up to. Was it able to get the studio back on track, or was The Boxtrolls the start of a downward trend? Let’s find out.

Spoilers Ahead

Kubo and the Two Strings (August 19th 2016)

How was it?

Pretty damn good. But before we get into things like story, character, and plot, it has to be said that this film is one of the most gorgeous works of animation that I have ever seen. Laika films are always pretty, and the end of ParaNorman should be in a textbook for showcasing incredible animation. But dear Lord, this was a whole other level. From start to finish this film sought to demonstrate all the wonder that stop-motion animation can bring, and it succeeded (even The Little Prince‘s amazing visuals look quaint by comparison). For a lot of films, that would be enough, but Kubo doesn’t simply stop at pretty animation. It also brings exquisite cinematography. The film realized it could bring its top notch animation to an even higher level by figuring out the perfect composition for most of the movie. The fights in the film are fluid, and beautifully choreographed. The final fight between Kubo and the Moon King is especially well done. Man, does it pop! Add in a superb score by Dario Marianelli that evokes the perfect blend of emotions, and a truly transcendent animated credits sequence (that is almost even prettier than the stop motion–like, someone please animate a film in that style now). Honestly, describing how pretty this film is doesn’t do it enough justice. Hell, watching the previews doesn’t do it enough justice. So yeah, even if everything else about this movie was terrible, it still would be well worth seeing.

Seriously, this animation is just incredible.

Seriously, this animation is just incredible.

Thankfully, though, that is not the only thing this film has going for it. This is a film that does what more so-called kids’ movies should do–it doesn’t speak down to children. Sure, there are juvenile jokes here that are clearly for young children, and at its core, the story follows the very familiar hero’s journey plot (as so many stories before it have), but once you get past that layer, Kubo is infinitely more complex and deep. This is a movie about dealing with the idea of mortality, and it doesn’t shy away from the subject in the least. Death and what may or may not come after is a part of life, and everyone has to deal with it. That’s where stories come in. Stories and memories are one of the ways one can achieve immortality. When you tell a story, or even become a part of one, you pass part of yourself on to those that hear that story. Then they pass it on along with the tale to the next person, who… and so on and so forth. Lost loved ones live on in this way through those they leave behind, says Kubo. That doesn’t mean losing people is easy, or that this makes all of the bad and evil in the world disappear, but it is a reason to not let the idea of death and pain stop you from living life. Even though much of Kubo‘s target audience won’t understand these ideas, the film trusts it will have an impact anyway. After The Boxtrolls spoke down to its audience a little too much, it’s nice to see Laika return to a type of storytelling that trusts its viewers and understands that even if younger audience members don’t completely understand what is going on, there is still value in exposing them to real ideas.

I have to say, although Kubo is the right blend of funny, touching, and exciting, and its characters work well, the film does have the flaw of skipping its character development a little too much. There are multiple conversations between characters that would suggest a deep relationship that hasn’t had enough screen time to make sense. Multiple times, you feel as though a key moment was about 5-10 minutes too early, and needed a scene or two more of character development to work. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, but it is noticeable the number of corners that seem to be cut at times to get the story moving along. The film relies a bit too much on the twist about both Monkey’s and Beetle’s true identities to explain away a number of scenes that don’t quite feel right. This is a shame, if only because the film still does a great job despite this flaw, so that you can’t help but wonder what might have been if, say, there were just 20 more minutes of character development inserted into the film. It is likely that a lot of this is because they wanted to streamline Kubo‘s plot as much as possible to make up for the fact that it is dealing with such deep themes, and didn’t want to make things any more complicated than they had to be, which is understandable. But the film just went too far with it.

Still, the fine voice work and visual storytelling help offset these script issues. Art Parkinson is especially good as Kubo, and he makes a great foundation for the film as a whole, instead of having to be carried by the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takai, and Brenda Vaccaro. Despite some small hiccups, this film is a treat to watch, plain and simple.

Isn’t this based on…?

Well, it is heavily versed in Japanese lore, and does seem to have some parallels to the heavenly host in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, but as a whole, this film is an original idea, which is as always a refreshing change of pace.

Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?

Yes, though, with one kind of major issue. This film definitely served as a return to form for Laika. The Boxtrolls really wasn’t that bad of a movie, but it just seemed like such a step down for Laika after the success of Coraline and ParaNorman (and to some extent their earlier feature, Corpse Bride). So Kubo definitely showed that the stop-motion studio still has it. The critical reception to this film has been quite strong, and it is almost assuredly going to garner Laika another Oscar nomination. Of course, on its own that isn’t necessarily saying much, considering what sorry shape the animation category at the Oscars is; but this film could very well sneak up and win this year, which would be a big deal. The possibility may seem remote, considering the category has basically become an excuse to reward Disney or Pixar for just about anything they do (which is not always wrong, obviously, but it certainly can be), and this year both of those studios came to play. Disney brought Zootopia and will also give us Moana this year, while Pixar released Finding Dory. There is a good chance that on their own, any one of those three would win, no matter the year (assuming Moana is as good as it looks to be), but when put together into one year, things get a bit dicey. I could totally see these three splitting the votes if they all get nominated, which could allow Laika to slip in and get the win after years of always an Oscar bridesmaid, never an Oscar bride. (The same could be true for Gkids, if either Phantom Boy or April and the Extraordinary World get nominated.)

Admittedly, this all seems very unlikely. Let’s be honest, either Disney or Pixar are winning this year, because the animation category is especially not going to bother rewarding a non-Disney or Pixar film when the Disney and Pixar films from this year are actually good (they barely bother when the studios’ entries aren’t good). Then there is the fact that, while it’s not doing poorly in its opening weekend box office, Kubo didn’t exactly do well. This film had by far the lowest opening for any Laika film, at a little over $16 million (as a point of reference, Boxtrolls was the next lowest, at $50 million). Even if you reason that Laika lost fans because of Boxtrolls, this decline is rather steep, and makes little sense. It is possible that the word of mouth from this film could help it stay strong over the long haul, and the film’s budget isn’t so big that it can’t make its money back, but it seems likely that Laika’s string of $100 million box office movies is coming to an end, and that could cost the film come Oscar time. Add in the fact that other, buzzier animated films from this year might be even better than Kubo–the very successful Zootopia, for example–and Kubo has a steep hill to climb.

They were still quite the team whitewashed and all not sure that really matters...

Yeah, these actors make a good team, but I’m not sure that excuses the whitewashing…

Then there is the one major issue I have to bring up, which may further hamper this film’s financial and awards prospects–man, did Laika whitewash the hell out of this movie. Considering how deeply versed in Japanese culture this film is, you would think that they would have made more of an effort to involve Asian voice actors. Sure, there’s George Takai, but he is barely in the movie. I understand that using names like Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey can be helpful to sell the movie our movie can be helpful, and when you can get quality performers like that you generally should, but if we are being honest, no one goes to animated films because of the voice actors. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched this if someone like Ming Na Wa would have been just as good as Theron, or if someone like Constance Wu would have been a better choice than Rooney Mara, or if John Cho would have been just as good as McConaughey. Hell, even giving George Takai a bigger role would have helped, or casting a young unknown Asian actor in the place of Art Parkinson (who is really good, but let’s be honest, even most Game of Thrones fans don’t realize he played Rickon Stark, the only other role he might be known for). The whitewashing of this film is a black mark against it, and the criticism has slowly started to acknowledge this. Whether this has impacted or will impact how well this film ultimately does remains to be seen, but it feels like a wasted opportunity for Laika to have been ahead of the curve instead of behind it, which is a real shame. Does that mean you shouldn’t see it? No, but man, I am tired of having to constantly do the moral calculus of whether the quality of a movie means we should overlook one of the many social flaws that exist in Hollywood right now.

Would I recommend it to others?

Yes, see this movie. In theatres if you can, so that you can really appreciate how god damn beautiful it is. Seriously, this is a present for your eyes. If you can’t see it in theatres, though, that is fine. This is a really important story about how to deal with loss that can be meaningful for all ages.

How would I rate it?

This film is a love letter to stop-motion animation, deserves to be seen as many people as possible, and even has an outside chance at an Oscar. At the same time, its middling box office success and whitewashing concerns are troubling, so on the handy Anticipation Meter it receives 7.5 strings out of 10. This is one of the better films of this year, and even as part of a stacked year for animated movies, Kubo proves that Laika hasn’t lost a step.

For an actual rating: I am torn on what to do with this film. In a lot of ways it feels like The Boy and the Beast, which is a wonderful film that had just enough flaws to keep it from being a four-star movie. This film feels a little rushed at times, and skips a few too many character beats. At the same time, it is gorgeous, and the thematics in this film are top notch–but once again, the same could be said of The Boy and the Beast. The fact that I’m struggling with this is good evidence all by itself that Kubo isn’t a four-star movie. I’ll acknowledge this could change, and I may actually watch this film again just to see if that happens, but for now, Kubo lies between the 3.5 to 4 range, landing it at 3.75 stars out of 4. This is a really, really good movie that just took one or two too many short cuts in its storytelling.

That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. This was a nice film to get us back on track. I am once again not sure what will be next for The Anticipated, as some catch up is still needed before the next slew of films come out in September, so just stay tuned to find out.

-David Robertson