VOD Review: Kubo and the Two Strings.
We review Kubo and look at why this Oscar nominated film fared so poorly with audiences.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth project from Studio Laika, who rose to prominence with their stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. While the studio never really found another hit as impressive as Coraline, their other films all managed to turn decent profits. Kubo, their most ambitious project, failed to ignite much interest, although critics and people who saw the film were universally positive about it. I even had it on my Most Anticipated Films of 2016 list…and then promptly skipped it.
Why? What took a film I was excited for off of my schedule for nearly a year? Bad marketing, plain and simple.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
We begin our story with an infant Kubo and his mother fleeing an angry ocean in a flimsy boat. The narrator informs us that Kubo’s uncle, The Moon King, is angry at his mother for consorting with a human Samurai lord. He seeks to punish his daughter and steal Kubo’s remaining eye, after having stolen the first one already. Despite his mother’s magic, the pair are shipwrecked on the edge of a small village.
Kubo grows up and learns to play the Shamisen, a stringed instrument, which he can use to animate origami paper into life-like magical creations. He makes his living telling stories of heroes and monsters, especially the story of Hanzo, a human warrior who fell in love with The Moon King’s daughter, and sought three magical items to defeat the celestial tyrant. It turns out those stories were true, and that Kubo, Hanzo’s son, must also go on a journey to find these items in order to gain revenge on The Moon King, who has torn apart his family.
A Hit On (folded) Paper.
Kubo has pretty much everything going for it. The visuals are breathtaking when it comes to the settings and the magical creatures. The animation of the origami is especially deft and magical. The film is filled with colorful characters, all with their own stories and motivations. The voice acting cast is star studded and impressive: Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and even George Takei all provide wonderful work. Art Parkinson is fine as Kubo; he is engaging when performing but a tad overwrought when narrating.
Studio Laika is at the top of their form here, and have shown a deep dedication to the art of stop-motion animation. Kubo makes some of their earlier work seem jerky and unpolished by comparison. A few of their models are a tad ugly (Kubo, in particular, is not easy on the eyes) but they’re always had an aesthetic of slightly grotesque figures. It’s their look, just as much as Tim Burton favors pale and skeletal character designs in his animations.
The story of Kubo feels familiar and foreign at the same time. It appropriates many trappings of Japanese folk tales, though its story is largely original. “The son of a hero goes on an epic adventure” is not exactly the most novel of story arcs, but Kubo actually manages to put a unique spin on many aspects of that well-worn genre. Our hero is a musician, not a fighter, and he approaches conflict in interesting ways. Imagine if Luke Skywalker had defeated Darth Vader, not with a sword he barely knows how to use, but with farming techniques he’s known his whole life. That kind of unique spin.
The characters also have nice flourishes that set them apart from stock archetypes. Beetle, the forgetful warrior cursed to be half-man, half bug, is by measures dashing and oafish. He provides levity and action in equal parts. Monkey, Kubo’s mystical guardian sent from his mother, is fierce and imperious, but also maternal, and she adds an emotional complexity to the proceedings. Kubo himself is childish and whimsical, but has a hard edge to him. He is not going on a revenge mission unwillingly! His grandfather did him wrong, and he’s looking forward to making him pay.
What Went Wrong?
The marketing for Kubo and the Two Strings failed miserable to communicate the strengths of the project. Just watch the trailer and see what messages you are getting:
To me, that trailer feels overly generic. It looks like the kind of adventure story Disney churns out regularly. It also has enough Japanese elements (notice the heavy focus on the katana, which ends up playing almost no role in the actual film) that it feels like a generic Japanese adventure story. The characters feel like stock from Japanese folk tales and pop culture, and we don’t get any of the aspects that set them apart. Generic action, stock characters, and a homogeneous hero’s journey is what the trailer shows us.
What Is Missing.
What the trailer leaves out is all of the best parts of Kubo. At its heart, Kubo is a family drama. There are heartache inducing scenes early on of Kubo and his mother. Really emotionally powerful stuff. The trailer glosses this and makes it seems like Kubo is setting out on his own steam, instead of being forced to leave by family tragedy. The interplay between Monkey and Beetle makes the middle of the film fun, but they have no interactions at all in the trailer. They become Kubo’s surrogate family as his actual family (The Moon King and his daughters) is trying to kill him. We don’t get any sense of the narrative arc about a generational struggle. They just seem like generic villains, especially since it is the faceless sisters who appear to be the main antagonists.
Finally, we lack much of the grand sweeping beauty of the film. We get a small glimpse of the amazing opening scene on the sea, but the rest of the trailer is mostly dark and dingy. The marvelous sets are mostly absent. The incredible monsters are also absent. The things that properly elevate this to an epic are all missing.
Worth the Asking Price.
Hopefully an Oscar nomination for best animated picture will put Kubo and the Two Strings back on people’s radar. The film can be streamed for peanuts from nearly every service. I caught it on Vudu, for the ludicrous price of .99 cents.
Kubo is a fun and rousing adventure that also has a surprisingly deep emotional component. Despite a few shabby looking characters, it is visually impressive. The ending credits show how the stop-motion for one of the boss fights was orchestrated, and you get a sense of how much work goes into making such a phenomenal scene. There’s a lot to like about Kubo, despite an ending that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the film. Hopefully, Laika can capitalize on fresh accolades to get Kubo the attention it deserved.